Villager photo by Laurie Mittelmann
Tom Donnelly, a Project Comeback program participant, on a street-sweeping shift at Broadway and Prince St.
After making a clean sweep, homeless are bagging jobs
By Lucas Mann
“We have just three conditions that a candidate needs to meet to be a part of Project Comeback,” said James Martin, executive director of the Association of Community Employment (A.C.E.) Programs for the Homeless, sitting in his Spring St. office. “They need to be recovering homeless, they need to show no recent violent history and they need to be willing to work.”
With the help of A.C.E., many Project Comeback participants have transitioned from prisons, shelters and halfway homes to full-time employment. Project Comeback has been a presence in the Soho and Tribeca communities for years, most visibly as the street sweepers wearing Tribeca Partnership or SoHo Partnership uniforms. Those two neighborhood cleaning campaigns provide the work for Project Comeback participants and, according to Martin, that daily experience with broom and bin is key to building a life of full-time employment and economic independence.
“We believe that you should teach someone how to work instead of just saying, ‘Here’s a job,’” Martin explained. “If you haven’t worked in 10 years, how do know how to keep a job?”
There are 52 participants in A.C.E. now, more than ever before. They enter a six-month program, where they work a weekly schedule as sweepers, plus attend workshops in résumé building, mock interviews and typing and can get G.E.D. study help if they need it. They leave with a foundation on which to build toward getting the employment they want.
Denise Braggs entered the Project Comeback program four months ago as a street sweeper, soon applied for the office intern position and now handles mail and helps prepare press kits, working in the same office as Martin.
“I’ve grown a lot here,” Braggs said. “I have a very limited experience with office administration, but they give you rewards for working hard. I’ve been coming out of my shell here. I speak more. I’ve built my self-esteem.”
Braggs is looking for work in office administration with the help of A.C.E.’s staff, and is proud to be off drugs and out of legal trouble. Her children are proud, as well.
“I’m a mother of six,” Braggs said with a smile. “My children like that Mommy is working. They get to come visit the office sometimes and get to see what I’m doing.”
Martin points to that open, friendly office environment as a quality that makes A.C.E. unique.
“We try to treat our organization like it’s a small family,” he said. “Everyone deserves to be treated respectfully, fairly, and given a chance to succeed. What makes us different, too, is that we provide aftercare. We track people for life.”
A.C.E. figures that sending a person who has never held a full-time job out into the work force after six months and then walking away is not really providing care. What if circumstances again become difficult? That’s where Project Stay, the follow-up to Project Comeback, comes in. Through Project Stay, A.C.E. offers advice and job services to any graduate of its program, for as long as he or she needs.
“Let’s just say somebody gets a boss who is a jerk,” Martin said. “Ordinarily, they’d just walk out on the job. Instead, they can come back and talk to us.”
This continuous, intimate care has been part of A.C.E.’s philosophy since the organization began in 1992, when its founder, former investment banker Henry Buhl, told the Bowery Residents’ Committee, which provides rehabilitation and care to the homeless, that he would pay people to come sweep in front of his Spring St. home.
Sixteen years later, on a sweltering Wednesday in late June, a group was preparing to hit the streets for the afternoon work shift.
“It’s a pretty hectic day,” said Michael Williams, their crew supervisor. “From 7 to 11:45, there’s a work shift. Then job workshops from 12:30 to 1:30. Then there’s the afternoon route until 3:45.”
Marvin Agee, in his fourth month at A.C.E., readied his rolling garbage can and said that he did not mind the hard work.
“They let you work overtime,” he said, “So I usually work six days a week. I just like to work. If I’m not working, I get bored.”
Agee is looking to take his work ethic into a job as a building porter or a warehouse worker once his time at A.C.E. ends.
Other A.C.E. members expressed the same willingness to hit the streets.
“Working hard doesn’t bother me,” said Hector Bonilla, who had just returned to the program after an injury. “It’s hard in the summertime, but I do what I have to do. For a long time, I was hustling, trying to make the fast buck. But I’m 53 at my age I got tired of that life.”
Before coming to A.C.E., Bonilla was Upstate serving time in jail. Now, he describes himself as “stabilized.”
It is not uncommon for men to find a new lifestyle and profession later in life through A.C.E. Robert Bowman graduated from Project Comeback in 2006. He now works two jobs, one as a deckhand with Spirit Cruises and one as an assistant crew supervisor back at A.C.E., helping people in the same position that he was in just two years ago.
“This is my life,” Bowman said happily. “This helps me stay clean, too. Being here doesn’t allow you to forget where you came from. I figured no one would hire me because of my age and, lo and behold, I’ve got two jobs. I’m in it to win it. As long as I think I can help somebody, I will stay here, because somebody helped me once.”
Walking along Broadway to check on his workers, Michael Williams described his feelings toward these men and women that he sees nearly every day of the week.
“It’s really humbling for a person to be sweeping out here,” he said. “I’m proud of every person who comes through here, even if they only last for a week. It takes a lot to try and pull yourself back up.”
A.C.E. counts on neighbors to notice the value of the work of its members, the way Williams does.
“We don’t really receive government money,” A.C.E. Director Martin pointed out. “It’s really a grassroots organization. We go to business owners, condo owners, residents [to fundraise]. It’s important to remember that we’re a social service agency and also a community-improvement program. We’re helping make the streets cleaner and we’re helping New York City as a whole.”
Jennifer Joyce, the group’s executive director of business development and marketing, described other additions that A.C.E. is making to its program.
“We are beginning a green initiative,” she said. “We’d like to get rid of plastic bags in Soho, so we’ve got tote bags for sale. We are also getting biodegradable trash bags.”
Martin hopes that all of these new ideas will help A.C.E. to continue achieving its larger goal assisting more people.
“We need to expand our service area,” he said. “We are trying to broaden our reach. Our goal will always be to help more people.”