Richard Norat was 9 years old the first time he was incarcerated.
He ended up in a notorious juvenile center in the Bronx known as Spofford, which was shut down in 2011 after reports of abuse and fights amongst the children. Not long after being imprisoned, he and a group of kids pulled off a Hollywood-esque escape by cutting through mesh wire windows and descending down a sheet to freedom.
And then he was homeless.
"We slept on rooftops and trains, never knew where our next meal was going to come from from," Norat told A Plus. "From a young age I lived to use and used to live. What's to be expected of a life like that?"
Norat was 8 years old when he first started using drugs, a habit he picked up from the aunts and uncles his mom left him with so she could go to work. As he grew older, Norat began using harder drugs. He never had a job, didn't know how to read or write, and slowly began living a life of crime to stay alive — his stint in Spofford had done little to dissuade him from breaking the law.
Eventually, he got sentenced to 20 years in prison.
During his time in jail, he used the 16 cents he made an hour working to save up and buy a radio. He listened to NPR to improve his vocabulary, knowing people on the outside didn't talk like the people in prison. He taught himself to read and write. He got his GED.
And one day, while in the library, he and his friend Pete Martinez found a book called Connections.
"We found 50 different programs in there that try and help a person change their life," Norat said. "We wrote 50, 16 wrote back, all of them said they'd help me rebuild my life… except one: The Doe Fund."
More than two million people are currently incarcerated in the United States, and almost all of them are — at some point — coming home.
Many of those men and women — in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles, anywhere from 30 to 50 percent — are homeless when they're released. On top of that, a Bureau of Justice Statistic study estimates that the recidivism rate, or the rate at which people return to prison, is 76 percent within five years for inmates released from state facilities.
Unfortunately, there seems to be no cohesive plan or investment around what to do with these formerly incarcerated individuals when they are released back into society. But The Doe Fund thinks they've figured it out.
A New York City nonprofit, The Doe Fund is working to find a solution for formerly incarcerated individuals who are released with no money, few skills, and in many cases a family to support. They also support homeless men and drug abusers who can't seem to get on their feet. The Doe Fund's goal is to break the cycle of incarceration, homelessness, poverty and recidivism, and it appears they've found a novel and effective way to do it: by immediately giving the men in their programs paid work.
"Nobody picks up a gun and a bag of coke if they have a job offer on the table," Alex Horowitz, The Doe Fund's chief of staff, told A Plus. "The sole reason these young men get sucked into it is because they grow up in crushing poverty deprived of all opportunity and that is an opportunity, they have to make money."
Photo: The Doe Fund
When Norat wrote to The Doe Fund, he got a similar message of opportunity: don't be prepared for a hand out, be prepared for a hand up. Though they wouldn't promise to rebuild Norat's life, they did offer something else.
"The director of the facility at the time said 'I can't guarantee you anything, but if you show up here face-to-face and talk to me, we can decide if this program is cut out for you,'" Norat said. "So I decided, this is it."
The idea that a job offer will keep people off the streets is the premise of the organization, which believes full-time work paired with housing and educational services are the key to rehabilitation. It also informs the world view of The Doe Fund's founder, George T. McDonald.
In the midst of New York City's homelessness crisis in the 1980s, when it wasn't uncommon for homeless people to be mistaken for trash, killed by cars or accidentally thrown in the back of sanitation trucks, McDonald was trying to do his part.
For 700 nights in a row, the garment industry executive showed up in Grand Central at 10 p.m. to hand out sandwiches to homeless people.
"They arrested me four times for doing it because they thought I was attracting people from Ohio for a bologna sandwich," McDonald said. "But all I heard over and over and over again from the homeless was, 'thank you for the sandwich, but I'd really like a room and a job.'"
He was shocked.
"I heard from people down on their luck doing drugs and everything else that they wanted to work!" he said.
Image: The Doe Fund
One of the people McDonald gave sandwiches to was a woman known only as "Mama." One night, in the dead of winter, NYPD kicked Mama out of the subway terminal and she froze to death on the street, clutching a scarf that McDonald had given her for Christmas.
The tragic loss strengthened his resolve to help, and not long after — in 1985 — he founded The Doe Fund.
How It Works
When someone is getting ready to leave prison, they go through a process with New York state, their parole officer, and the prison to analyze their living situation. If they can prove they are homeless with no family or home to go to upon release, the state can help facilitate admission to The Doe Fund.
Currently, 2,000 men a year are paroled without a home to go to in New York City alone, meaning the demand is already high for entry into The Doe Fund. Since 1990, their core program — Ready, Willing & Able — has served over 22,000 people.
Ready, Willing & Able is a 9-12 month program that prepares formerly incarcerated men for careers by immediately putting them to work inside the home where they're staying. The Harlem location that A Plus visited was a remodeled school turned into a housing center. In their first month, participants are assigned light custodial duties, given a case manager and educational assessments. Wages for their work are automatically deposited into a personal savings account administered by the program.
From the very first paycheck, they are required to pay any child support, set aside savings, pay discounted room and board, and submit themselves to random drug tests twice a week. The goal is to prepare the men for family reunification and the challenges of living outside prison.
"These people are not islands, they have families out there, children out there, former partners out there," Horowitz said. "If you can restore that man back into the community, back into neighborhood, back into the family at all — then all the sudden he starts to generate money and stability."
Image: The Doe Fund
After their month of custodial work, the men will move into the Community Improvement Project where they are contracted to clean over 170 miles of New York City streets and sidewalks each day. Those crews, well-known as "the men in blue" and frequently seen all over New York City, help teach the men soft skills necessary for successful employment, such as teamwork and personal responsibility.
"We have career paths that folks go into, so sweeping the streets is just to start to show that they can take direction, get up, etc.," McDonald said. "We wanted to mirror what the societal outcome was, that mirrored what America was looking for, as opposed to looking at people and saying, 'Here are people we can't help in America and so we put them in a closed society.'"
During their off-hours from work, the men at The Doe Fund take mandatory classes that cover foundational education, parenting classes for those with children under 18, financial management, conflict resolution, adult literacy, and so on. About six months into the program, they are enrolled in professionally licensed career tracks that The Doe Fund describes as "recession-proof." Culinary arts, pest control, commercial driving and building maintenance are all common tracks for Doe Fund members to pursue.
Image: The Doe Fund
Typically, they will finish the program with a certification and professional license. And before their 12 months is up, they go through dress rehearsal interviews with corporate volunteers who teach them the basics of how to answer questions and dress properly.
"We have 300 or 400 employer partners, and when they have an open position, they can match up candidates," Horowtiz said. "They don't actually place anyone in a job, they send them to interviews or do mock interviews with them and then the candidates go and get the job themselves."
Those partners include a laundry list of well-known companies like Amazon Prime, Mount Sinai Hospital, Magnolia Bakers, Union Square Hospitality and Steve Madden.
Is It Effective?
In New York City, there is a statute that requires the city to provide a roof for anybody within 24 hours of homelessness.
That statute is well-intentioned, but can have devastating outcomes when people rush to open a shelter or home.
"It's a great moral thing to do but there are also consequences to that," McDonald said. "People think, 'how fast can we open the bare-boned minimum and keep the city's budget in line?'"
The result, according to McDonald, is a mentality that if we give people housing we've suddenly solved homelessness. On the contrary, he believes a more holistic approach is needed. One that, at the minimum, provides a paying job.
New York City — which has provided millions of dollars in funding to The Doe Fund through various contracts — has rated the charity "fair" to "good" on its most recent performance evaluations, according to The New York Times. At its worst, it has received two designations of "poor" under the quality rubric, and at its best received an "excellent" on a large contract from the Department of Homeless Services.
Dr. Bruce Western, a sociology professor at Harvard University, conducted a study of the Ready, Willing & Able program and found that graduates of the program were 60 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony three years after exiting Doe Fund. Even for people that didn't complete it, the effects were profound: if they completed the first five months of the program, participants were 56 percent less likely to commit a violent crime three years later.
It's not just good for the participants, either: it's good for the city. An independent audit found that for every dollar utilized in the program, New York taxpayers saved $3.60 in "costs associated with emergency city services and the criminal justice system."
The fact that 54 percent of Ready, Willing & Able men have children, 64 percent have been incarcerated and 40 percent entered the program without their high school diploma make those numbers pretty encouraging.
The average starting wage of those who finish the program is $10.80 an hour. Norat, who taught himself to read and write in jail, now has his own apartment, works as a licensed pest control professional and proudly brags that he is a taxpaying member of society.
Image: The Doe Fund
Not long after graduating, Norat gave a speech that was posted to YouTube about his experience in the Ready, Willing & Able program. By a stroke of luck, his brother — who he hadn't seen in 25 years — came across the video and contacted The Doe Fund. They wouldn't give him Norat's number, but they gave Norat his contact information.
"I called my brother and I knew his voice instantly. No matter how many years go by, you know your people," Norat said.
The two talked for a while before his brother said he'd love to see him. Norat, who was just getting familiar with his iPhone, thought he meant a trip to California, where his brother was living. But when he hung up, his phone started flashing, and he saw a green accept button.
"So I pressed the accept button, and boom — my brother was there face-to-face with me," Norat said. "He said, 'I want to show you someone,' and he put my mother on the phone. She was living with him. My mother is 88 years old. I used to dream in prison about one day getting to see her again."
A few months later, Norat's mother came to New Jersey to visit him. He rented a car and a hotel for her to stay in with his own money. It was the first time they had seen each other in 30 years.
His brother, he was amused to learn, was working as a police officer in California.