"Getting out of prison, I had no job and no place to go, so I ended up in a shelter in Brooklyn,” said José Carrero. A recent graduate of the Ready, Willing & Able program of the Doe Fund, which helps homeless people become independent, José spoke these words at its annual graduation ceremony in a packed Wallace Hall, the undercroft of St. Ignatius Loyola, the Jesuit church on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Watching from my seat near the middle of the hall, I could not help but feel grateful that this handsome space had been made available for a gathering of low-income New Yorkers—now dressed in their best clothes for an occasion that emphasized their dignity as human beings, deserving of a respect too seldom accorded them.
José described his struggle with addiction and the violence of prison life, and bursts of applause periodically interrupted him as he spoke of the upward steps that marked that difficult climb. And no wonder. Here was a true resurrection account, that of a person who had moved from death to life through his own determination, and with the Doe Fund’s support. The fund is named for “Mama” Doe, a homeless woman whose true identity has never been discovered. She froze to death after being expelled from Grand Central Terminal on Christmas 1985.
José later visited America House to tell me more of his story. Beaten by an alcoholic father who abandoned the family when José was 10, he ended up in a group home. He ran away and by age 12 was selling drugs on the street. Arrested and convicted under New York State’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws to 8 and 1/3 to 25 years, he spent his youth and young adult life behind bars. He was 17 when he went in, 39 at his release—virtually all of his young adulthood had been swept away by the time he finally emerged.
To defend himself from predatory inmates while incarcerated, José used homemade weapons. The resultant encounters led to his being placed in solitary confinement, “the box.” Even there he had access to drugs, which he used “so I could live,” as he put it. Although he spent five years in the dehumanizing conditions of the box, it was there that he experienced what he called a spiritual awakening. “One night,” he said, “ I woke up and thought, ‘What am I doing to myself?’” He flushed his remaining drugs down the toilet. “And then I opened the Bible and began to read.” His focus became the 23rd Psalm—a psalm that has remained a mainstay of his life. During that early period of self-transformation, he explained, “I stopped blaming others for what I had done to myself, thinking everybody owed me something. And that,” he added, “was like freeing myself of a burden.”
After José was released from prison, a case manager at the shelter asked him, as he asked all the new men, “Are you ready, willing and able?” Unclear at first what that curious question might mean, José nevertheless signed up for the Doe Fund’s core program, known by those very words. Initially he did well, but on a visit to his old neighborhood, he briefly relapsed into drug use. A urine test revealed the lapse, and he was called in by the program staff for a “sit-down.” “I need some help,” he admitted, and he was offered a 28-day drug rehabilitation program. But first he had to see his parole officer. On the way, he thought of running. “But I was tired of running,” he said, and to his surprise and relief, his parole officer, instead of declaring him to be in violation of the conditions of his parole, said: “I’ll work with you.” Having completed a month’s drug rehabilitation, he was given a second chance with Ready, Willing & Able.
José became part of the program’s street cleaning crew. Their neat blue uniforms with the Doe Fund logo are a familiar sight in various New York City neighborhoods. After proving himself in that capacity, he was sent on a job interview to a dialysis clinic. So impressed was the interviewer by José’s determination that instead of hiring him as a maintenance worker, she hired him as a dialysis technician. He loves his work because, as he told me, it means helping others. With further study, he hopes to become a certified dialysis nurse.
Of the thousands who have completed the Doe Fund’s program, over half have stabilized their lives. Will José remain one of them? After speaking with him at America House, I am betting on it. His story shows that motivated homeless people—given strong support like that provided by the Doe Fund—can develop previously unrealized gifts and become self-sustaining members of the community..