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Ready, able but no longer willing
(Published September 11, 2000)
By OSCAR ABEYTA
Despite a $1 million incentive being dangled by Congress, a New York-based charitable organization that helps homeless people said it is unlikely to return to the District because of how poorly it was treated by the city government.
"We had the most successful homeless program in the country and the D.C. government ran us out of the city," said George McDonald, president and founder of The Doe Fund, which runs the homeless services program called Ready Willing and Able. "The District of Columbia has the worst homeless problem in the country with the possible exception of San Francisco."
The program was forced to close its dormitories and offices near Fourth Street and Florida Avenue NW in April after unsuccessfully trying to negotiate a contract with the city to provide funding through the rest of the current fiscal year.
At the time, the organization also came under criticism from Mayor Anthony A. Williams and his deputy mayor for human services for alleged sloppy bookkeeping and management practices. The groupís directors vehemently denied those charges, saying the city had never audited or even requested an audit of their books and citing the organizationís annual independent audits that have never turned up a problem. The organization had also recently won one of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Developmentís first-ever "Best Practices" awards for its work reducing homelessness.
Ready Willing and Able left the District after having provided nearly a quarter of a million dollarsí worth of services this year for which it was not paid. When the programís federal money ran out at the end of December, it kept operating through the middle of April with no funding in the hope that program officials could negotiate a contract with the city government to provide these same services. Those negotiations were unsuccessful, and Ready Willing and Able was forced to close shop.
Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., a staunch supporter of the programís efforts in the District, inserted $1.25 million in the cityís fiscal 2001 budget bill earmarked for the groupís programs in the District. McDonald characterized that appropriation as payment for the $250,000 the program is still owed and an extra $1 million to try to persuade them to return.
A spokeswoman for Rep. Ernest Istook, R-Okla., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the Districtís budget, said the money is expected to remain in the final version of the bill the House will vote on.
McDonald said it would take much more than just money to re-establish his program in the District.
"I need the support and cooperation of the government of the District of Columbia," he said. "Nothing thatís transpired so far Ė including our closing our program Ė has convinced me so far that that cooperation is forthcoming."
An embittered McDonald said the real losers in the situation are the homeless people in the District.
"Itís not aÖjoke to me when people are dying in the street and the mayor and the administration donít give a damn about them," he said. "The District of Columbia is a city that has a desperate need for a program that puts (the homeless) to work and takes them out of the cycle of drugs and prison that they are in."
Participants in the Ready Willing and Able program were easily recognized throughout the city in their distinctive blue jumpsuits and baseball caps, sweeping streets and sidewalks or doing landscaping for companies that hired them. From Georgetown to downtown, Ready Willing and Able had contracts with businesses and organizations to spruce up the cityscape.
The D.C. budget is expected to be debated on the House floor during the second week of September. Councilman David Catania, R-At large, has urged House Republicans to pass the bill quickly. The new fiscal year begins Oct. 1, and the bill still has to go through the Senate and then a probable joint House-Senate committee that works out differences between the two versions usually approved before it goes to the president for his signature. Congress historically has not passed the D.C. budget in time for the new fiscal year, forcing them to pass continuing resolutions that allow the D.C. government to continue to operate.