Pubdate: Sat, 25 Dec 1999
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 1999 The New York Times Company


BERNARD MINNIEFIELD'S moment of redemption came at the same time of year as
Soapy's in "The Cop and the Anthem." Soapy, you may recall from the O. Henry
story, was the "denizen of Madison Square" who awakened on his park bench
one chilly autumn day early this century and set out to secure his customary
accommodations in jail for the winter.

Soapy tried all day to get arrested, but the police kept ignoring his
misdemeanors. Then, while pausing outside a church, he heard an organ
playing a hymn from his youth and was suddenly stricken with remorse. "Those
solemn but sweet organ notes had set up a revolution in him," O. Henry
wrote. "Tomorrow he would go into the roaring downtown district and find
work." In Mr. Minniefield's case, the sounds were not from an organ. They
were from teenagers a couple of months ago, chanting, "Crackhead! Crackhead!

Mr. Minniefield was 37 years old and had been living on the streets for the
last five of them. At that moment, he was sitting on the sidewalk outside
Pennsylvania Station, drinking a beer. "I was filthy," he recalled. "I
smelled. My hair was in a big dirty Afro. I'd lost a lot of weight. A bunch
of kids were laughing at me, and I felt really bad -- totally humiliated.
Right there and then I decided to go into detox."

Unlike Soapy, whose transcendent moment was interrupted by a policeman
arresting him for loitering, Mr. Minniefield encountered no official
resistance. He promptly entered a detoxification center and then moved into
the Harlem Men's Shelter to join the Ready, Willing and Able program
operated by the Doe Fund.

Two weeks ago, he put on a blue uniform and went to work for $5.50 per hour
cleaning the sidewalks of Amsterdam Avenue on the Upper West Side. After the
mandatory deductions -- to get used to supporting themselves, the men must
pay $65 toward food and shelter and set aside money in a savings account --
Mr. Minniefield pocketed $98 for the week.

"This is the best thing that could have happened to me," he said, looking
robust during a coffee break on Monday afternoon. "It gets you back on your
feet so you can save some money and get your life back together. It feels
good to be clean." But wasn't it hard to adjust to a full-time job? What
about the temptation to spend the cash on drugs? "The job keeps me
occupied," he said. "I have something to look forward to every day when I
get up. You know, that can be habit-forming, too."

Like Mr. Minniefield, nearly all the men entering the Ready, Willing and
Able program are homeless addicts or alcoholics. (Unlike Mr. Minniefield,
the average man also has three felony convictions.) Each man who completes
the program is guaranteed to leave with $2,000 in savings. Most men manage
to set aside an additional several thousand dollars.

More than 60 percent not only graduate from the yearlong program -- triple
the rate for typical drug-rehabilitation programs -- but go on to maintain
permanent jobs and housing three years later.

ONE reason for the high success rate may be that many of the men, like Mr.
Minniefield, are volunteers who sign up only when they're finally primed to
get off the streets -- when they've already had their Soapy moments. But
George McDonald, president of the Doe Fund, says the success rate is just as
high among nonvolunteers who are assigned to the Harlem shelter by the city.

Whatever is responsible for the success, the Harlem shelter is one of the
more inspiring places to visit during Christmas week. You hear story after
story like Mr. Minniefield's. Clarence Humphrey, estranged from his family
during his crack days, was making plans for a New Year's trip with his wife
and son to visit his grandfather.

"I got paid last week and bought my son a bike," he said. "That felt good."

Trevor Bristow, a 1997 alumnus, came back to visit the staff at the shelter
carrying one of the wallets that the Toyota Corporation had handed out as
presents at graduation. He was making $400 a week in the demolition business
and driving a new Toyota Corolla. He had just bought his son a bike and a a
video-game machine for Christmas.

"I was on the street for six years," he said. "When you're dependent on
drugs, you get the feeling you can't do anything. Even if it's sweeping the
street, that gives you a feeling of self-worth. When you take care of
yourself, you feel better about yourself. When you take care of others, you
feel even better."
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