Sweep for Your Supper

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Homeless, and fresh from a prison term for assault, Tim wanted only two things: a new life and a stable place in which to build it. So as the first signs of winter sent homeless men and women streaming into the city’s shelters last year, Tim joined them, finding a spot at the massive 850-bed Bellevue Men’s Shelter.

His caseworker told him he had a choice: Either start cleaning Bellevue as part of the shelter’s internal Work Experience Program or be transferred to the 1,000-bed Camp LaGuardia shelter in Orange County.

Tim explains that it would have been nearly impossible to hold a job in the city and live at Camp LaGuardia, located 90 miles outside of Manhattan. “You don’t want to live upstate,” he says. As he sees it, his caseworker basically gave him the choice between hope and defeat.

So Tim–not his real name–started working four hours a day, five days a week for 63 cents an hour in Bellevue’s shelter WEP. He and his 40 or so fellow workers cleaned bathrooms and mopped and swept the building’s eight floors, doing the same janitorial work as the shelter’s few unionized community assistants.

Tim still lives in Bellevue and is afraid of getting kicked out if he is identified. Other shelter residents interviewed for this article requested that only their first names be used.

In the system’s large shelters for single adults, resident labor has become a common, cheap way to maintain services in the face of downsizing and budget cuts at the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Last year, about 1,400 other residents–one-fifth of all single adult shelter residents in adult shelters–were in some type of shelter WEP, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.

Like the city welfare agency’s official Work Experience Program, shelter WEP participants get benefits–in this case housing–in exchange for their work. They also get a very small stipend, typically around $12.50 for a 20 to 25 hour work week. DHS officials emphasize that, unlike the welfare program, shelter WEP is not mandatory. Technically, the work is voluntary.

Residents report, however, that shelter operators make it clear that it is in their best interest to pitch in. Some, like Tim, have been threatened with a transfer upstate. These residents complain that the program, billed as job training, is really just ill-paid custodial work that prevents them from finding a real job. They say shelter WEP, as it is commonly known, makes it impossible to save money or get the skills needed to escape the system and become self-sufficient.

Other nonprofit-run shelters offer more substantial jobs programs that pay up to $2 an hour and are designed to give residents a marketable skill like cooking. But those programs are the exception and workers say that most shelter jobs are dead-end. “There’s nothing wrong with pushing a broom if there are jobs open,” says Michael Polenberg, an advocate at the Coalition for the Homeless. “But if pushing a broom four days a week for six months would qualify you for getting a job, people wouldn’t be complaining. People would be rushing to sign up.”


Since 1994, DHS’ budget has been reduced by $68.4 million, in part by contracting out the daily operation of 35 of the city’s 42 shelters to nonprofit managers. The agency hopes nonprofits will provide better services in the shelters–while saving the city money. Many salaried community assistants who used to clean and cook for the residents have since been laid off or redeployed to other city agencies. This trend continued after the city halted privatization. Since 1996 there have been only seven city-run shelters. That year DHS employed 669 aides; in 1999 the number will fall to 531.

Instead, shelter WEP workers have taken over those responsibilities, working for negligible pay. The programs have been able to wiggle around minimum wage laws, saying that the work is job training–although a recent court decision has called that claim into question.

“[Shelter WEP workers have] been cleaning shelters for the past 15 years, and [the aides] were happy to have them do the cleaning,” says one shelter official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Fifteen years ago I told them, ‘You are a bunch of fools. If you keep letting WEP workers do your job, soon people are going to say, ‘Who needs [you]?’ That’s exactly what’s happening.”

Brooklyn’s 194-bed Forbell Avenue shelter, run by the nonprofit Samaritan Village, planned to spend $200,000 on work stipends for shelter residents this year, $10,000 more than last year. It now has only two paid maintenance employees, and both are supervisors. In comparison, the 410-resident Borden Avenue shelter in Queens has 30 salaried housekeeping aides, at a cost of $700,000.

Shelter WEP workers are a cheap source of labor in an expensive system. In 1997 the city spent an average of $48.77 a day per nonprofit-run shelter resident–that’s $1,483 a month, about the going rate for rent on a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn Heights. For each shelter resident who cleans and cooks, the city can save more than $24,500 a year in salary and benefit costs.

DHS emphasizes that these programs also provide discipline and structure. Shelter WEPs are motivational, says one agency official, and if during the program the residents also learn soft skills, like showing up for work on time, so much the better. “This is an engagement program for people not with the program,” the official explains. “It’s a way to get people to do something structured. It’s job training in a loose form.”

But according to a study by University of Pennsylvania Professor Dennis Culhane, 80 percent of shelter residents stay for fewer than two months. Many are just trying to get their lives in order, and for them, shelter WEP prevents them from saving enough to afford their own apartment.

“Ultimately, you have someone dependent on the public, through welfare, shelters or both,” says Polenberg. “Your goal is to get them not dependent on the public anymore. You have to figure out the most effective way to do that. WEP assignments don’t accomplish that. It’s simply an exchange [of work for shelter].”

In some of the more generous programs, it is possible to save money with enough hard work, says JJ, another homeless man who now lives at the Charles H. Gay shelter on Wards Island, which is run by Volunteers of America. He spent nine months in the shelter’s Project Breakthrough WEP and says some of his fellow residents work “overtime.”

“Some people are using Project Breakthrough like a job, busting their butts, like me, to get some walking-around money,” JJ says. He makes $2 an hour working in the kitchen. The program also holds out the hope of a permanent job. Many of the administrative and maintenance workers at the 950-bed shelter were hired through Project Breakthrough.


In the basement of Project Renewal’s East Third Street shelter recently, a former alcoholic named George is losing his battle to beat a couple of stubborn egg yolks into homemade mayonnaise.

“Raise, raise that whisk,” jokes Carlos, a fellow resident, as he pours oil on two eggs in his own aluminum bowl. “You’re going to break my egg yolks.” The two men, tricked out in white pants, white shirts, white aprons and white hats, are among 23 others taking a cooking class in the shelter’s basement kitchen.

By supplementing the shelter’s DHS subsidies with funding from outside sources, the nonprofit Project Renewal has set up a jobs program offering more than the usual custodial care for custodians. This culinary arts program is the promise of privatization in the shelter system. For 12 weeks, these cooks-in-training learn the basics of commercial cooking, then move to a 12-week internship in an institutional kitchen, where they receive a weekly stipend of $50 that pays for transportation and other needs. At the end of the program, residents get a training certificate and the skills they need to get jobs as prep cooks.

Project Renewal’s administrators say three out of four graduates get jobs. That’s why Carlos, who owned a catering business until his own alcoholism forced him to close it down, says he feels fortunate to be in the program. “You never see a cook without a job,” says Carlos, now whisking George’s eggs with talent. “You must be a terrible cook if you don’t have a job.”

It took six years for Project Renewal to build this program, assembling funding from a number of outside sources. When the agency started the program in 1992, it was originally answering a Request for Proposals from the city Department of Employment. Now funds from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development keep it going.

DHS officials hoped that shelter privatization would generate many programs like this one. Project Renewal’s Culinary Arts Director Barbara Hughes believes that as nonprofits gain more experience with shelter management, their directors will create more effective employment programs. “With privatization come nonprofits like Project Renewal that will be innovative,” Hughes says.

A few feet away Carlos has finished whisking the mayonnaise. In a few months he will begin his internship. He says he is thankful that this shelter has given him a second chance at his dream job: becoming a chef on a cruise ship. Carlos watches, smiling, as George makes himself a fresh mayonnaise sandwich. “The city needs more programs like this,” he says.

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