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Ready, willing, able — but not welcome

Successful program to train homeless loses D.C. funding

(Published April 24, 2000)

By OSCAR ABEYTA

Staff Writer

For five years, Ready Willing and Able participants could be seen around the city, in their sky-blue jump suits and baseball caps, cleaning up the streets and sidewalks the city had neglected, or frequently sprucing up the landscaping for companies that hired them. Few people realized that those work crews were made up of formerly homeless people in a program that was teaching them how to become self-sufficient and self-reliant members of society again.

The 18-month program takes homeless people and teaches them everything

(See READY, page 6)

from how to be polite to how to manage their bills and save money. But most importantly, it teaches them how to work again.

In the District, the program has successfully graduated 200 people for a success rate of 79.9 percent, according to the program’s director.

But city residents won’t be seeing those work groups anymore, because as of April 15, Ready Willing and Able (RWA) left town after failing to negotiate an agreement with the city to provide funding to carry them through the rest of the fiscal year. And quite literally adding insult to injury, one of Mayor Anthony A. Williams’ top deputies and the mayor himself accused the group of poor money management, a charge that the directors of the nationally recognized program vehemently denied.

The organization’s leaders say, however, that they have never been welcomed in the District, despite the fact that they were invited here to help solve one of the District’s most persistent problems – homelessness.

"We’re leaving with our heads down but not with our tails between our legs," D.C. Program Director Mahmoud A. Rashid said. He scoffed at Deputy Mayor Carolyn Graham’s assertions, published in the Washington Post, that the program has "incredibly bad" record keeping practices. He said the city had never audited them or requested an audit, but that the organization is regularly audited by an outside company.

Graham could not be reached for comment.

Williams, despite citing the program specifically as one of his top 20 priorities during the first part of his administration, sided with Graham in his comments on the subject.

"The problem with Ready Willing and Able was that it was an effective program but it’s a program that had a number of internal control and other management weaknesses that had to be corrected," he said. "You can have an effective program that’s not efficient and that’s not well managed."

Harriet McDonald, president of the New York-based Doe Fund, which runs the RWA programs in New York, New Jersey and elsewhere, noted proudly that the organization recently won one of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s first ever "Best Practices" awards for its work reducing homelessness.

"This has honestly been a shockingly bad experience for us," McDonald said of the D.C. departure.

McDonald said the group was invited to come to the District by then-Assistant HUD Secretary Andrew Cuomo, who had been asked by President Bill Clinton to beef up the District’s homeless services providers. Cuomo had worked with RWA in New York. Cuomo declined comment on the departure of RWA.

The federal agency awarded the program a one-year special initiative award and the group opened its doors here in January 1995. For the next three years, funding for the group was inserted in the D.C. budget by members of Congress through special line items. This last budget cycle, McDonald said Williams asked Congress not to put that money in the budget, telling them he would fund it through the city’s regular budget. McDonald said congressional funding ran out Jan. 1 and the money Williams was to secure for them never materialized.

Rashid said he has been trying to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the D.C. Department of Health and the Addiction Prevention and Recovery Administration since last September but was unable to reach any sort of agreement. Rashid said the program had been operating on private and donated funds since the beginning of the year and by the time they left town they were nearly a quarter of a million dollars in the red. He said administrators in New York decided to pull the plug on the D.C. project because it was siphoning off too much money from the New York operations.

Rashid and McDonald both said they were disappointed that they couldn’t persuade the D.C. government that their form of job and life skill training and education was a better solution to the homeless problem in the city than warehousing homeless people in shelters.

"I’m disillusioned by the District," Rashid said, "that you can show them the difference between cake and crumbs and they refuse to see the difference."

McDonald and Rashid both said the program was not welcomed very warmly by city agencies and other homeless services contractors in the city and blamed part of that on the fact that their funding came from Congress.

"We were not greeted with any happiness by the local providers," McDonald said. "We were looked upon as interlopers."

But she said the program made every effort to be connected to the people of the District. She noted that the program was staffed by area residents rather than New Yorkers.

"It’s not like we imported a staff, we just imported an idea that worked," she said.

Michael Ferrell, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless – which rented buildings to Ready Willing and Able – said he heard about some of the problems they were having because they were not a local organization.

"They were outsiders," Ferrell said. "To call them interlopers would be a little bit dramatic."

But he also echoed some of the sentiments that McDonald and Rashid said cast their program in a negative light and made operating in the District difficult.

"Why is it necessary for a group from outside the District – in this case from way outside the District – to come and establish this program and take city resources?" Ferrell asked.

Rashid said the chances of RWA returning to the District any time soon would be fairly remote.

"We would need a friendly attitude along with some kind of long-term commitments to even consider re-establishing the program in the District," Rashid said.

McDonald said she has gotten several calls of support from members of Congress offering their help for the program to return to the District, including calls from Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., James P. Moran, D-Va., and Connie Morella, R-Md.

When asked if any city officials had called her, she replied, "Absolutely not."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator