As Robert Perez helps to beautify Jackson Heights, he’s getting a chance at a clean slate.
“Before I came to this program, I was a mess. Legal problems, I was homeless. I had really no hope,” said Perez.
Perez is referring to the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless or ACE. It’s a work experience program designed to give homeless people a new lease on life.
Perez says getting paid to clean the streets helped raise his self-esteem.
“I didn’t care before, now you know I want to do something good. I’m an older guy, you know they say it’s never too late, but it gets to be a little too late. But they’re giving me hope,” said Perez.
It goes beyond just employment. ACE also offers job training and certifications.
“Things they’re going to add to their tool box, their employment toolbox it’s going to make it easier for them to transfer from this job street sweeping, to something higher paying and a little more competitive,” said Jim Martin, the executive director of ACE.
State Senator Jose Peralta gave ACE a $75,000 grant Friday. It’ll be used to hire two workers, to clean the stretch of Roosevelt Avenue between 82nd Street and 90th Street. Peralta calls it a win-win for the workers restarting their lives, as well as the community.
“It improves not only first impressions of visitors that come here in this area, that are many that come and eat at our ethnic restaurants but at the same time, it helps those individuals who live here and make them feel proud to see that our streets are clean,” said Peralta, who represents the area.
That’s pride Perez can certainly relate to. He says he’s become more aware of what littering does to a neighborhood.
“I’m a proud New Yorker and I want the city to be clean. It looks a lot better,” said Perez.
And Perez says, thanks to ACE, his future looks a lot better too.
Latricia grew up as an only child and from an early age her family noticed her gift for helping others. By the age of nine, Latricia was volunteering to spend her free evenings and weekends caring for her sick aunt. “I just liked helping older people,” she remembers. Latricia made it well known to her family that she would grow up to become a nurse.
By junior high school, Latricia was also a star athlete, excelling as the point guard on the basketball team, in track and field, and cheerleading for the football team. She was her family’s joy and no one could have predicted the devastation and trials that were just ahead.
“Why did THAT happen to me?”
When Latricia was 12 years old, her family moved from North Carolina to Newark, New Jersey. It was there that, at the age of 13, Latricia was sexually assaulted by a distant relative. “Immediately everything was different,” she recalls. Her passion for helping others turned into constant anxiety. She stopped playing basketball, running track, and cheerleading. Within a year of the assault, Latricia began experimenting with alcohol and marijuana. A young teen, incapacitated by her trauma, she spent countless sleepless nights asking the question, “Why did THAT happen to me?”
“I was at my bottom. So many demons. I just wanted to stop, so I went to get treatment and things started to turn around.”
At 16, Latricia dropped out of school and the next 30 years of her life were heavily influenced by substance use. During those times, there were joys, like the birth of her daughters, but there was always great instability. At times she had a job and at other times she didn’t. At times she had a place to stay and at times she was homeless.
For the sake of her family, Latricia finally decided to take a stand and face her past. “September 8th, 2015,” Latricia remembers, “I was at my bottom. So many demons. I just wanted to stop, so I went to get treatment and things started to turn around.” In her treatment program, she heard about ACE and felt moved to sign up.
“At ACE, I learned how to use the computer.”
“At ACE, I learned how to use the computer” she recalls, “how to interview, how to have enough patience to go out and clean New York City streets. ACE helps a person that’s down on their luck and doesn’t know which direction they’re going.”
Latricia spent four months building her experience in ACE’s initial program, Project Comeback. She attended classes, worked on sanitation crews, and met with ACE job developers to find employment leads. She began going on interviews and in September 2016 she landed a job as a housekeeper at a hotel in New Jersey. A week after becoming employed, Latricia used the money she saved from ACE’s work experience training to move into her own apartment.
Most important of all, Latricia is now restoring the bonds with her daughters and mother that were strained during her years of instability. “My kids are grown now,” she says. “I just had a grandbaby. At ACE, I kept a smile on my face because I knew that if I stuck with it, something good was going to happen. There’s going to be a rainbow after the storm.
At the age of 29, while serving a prison sentence, Raymond realized he was suffering from decades old trauma. From the time he can remember up until 11 years of age, Raymond lived in an extremely hostile environment, and only years later did he realize the effect it had had on him. His younger brother’s father had abused their mother regularly, in front of Raymond.
“My brothers were young,” he remembers. “They didn’t have to see my mom get violently harmed. It really played a part on me. I wasn’t very effective in school and I didn’t know what to do. When I look back. I remember I was preoccupied with finding a way to help my mother—to protect and save her. When I explain to certain people the actual details of the violence that went on and how consistent it was, they are astonished.”
“I was preoccupied with finding a way to help my mother—to protect and save her.”
Despite the traumatic environment, Raymond was a dutiful and loving older brother. His mother worked a morning and evening shift and in between the shifts she would come home to tell Raymond what he needed to do to take care of his brothers. He fed and bathed them and cleaned the house on a daily basis, all before he was even nine years old.
Into his teenage years, despite a positive relationship with his brothers, the trauma had placed a distance between him and his mother. “I would rather be on the streets than be home,” Raymond recalls. “I had no dreams. I had no hope. I was hurting constantly, I was just hurting and hurting and I didn’t know how to say it, or if I did say it, it didn’t seem that anyone cared.”
In his 30’s and 40’s Raymond had a son and a daughter, whom he loves dearly, but he still was having major struggles and setbacks, bouncing between housing and homelessness and coming in and out of jail for extended periods of time. Despite what the world told him, Raymond clung to his belief that he was a loving person. “I had acquired this long criminal history,” he remembers, “and judges and district attorneys and lawyers are saying, ‘He’s a menace to society.’ And I’m saying to myself, I’m nowhere near what you’re saying I am, but I can’t make anyone see. I just know I’m a kind and loving, affectionate person, but my experiences that I’ve been forced to be a part of have played a major part on my demeanor and my rearing. I had to survive.”
“I’m saying to myself, I’m nowhere near what you’re saying I am, but I can’t make anyone see.”
In January 2016, at the age of 54, Raymond came to ACE from a substance use treatment program. He recognized a number of personal barriers were holding him back. “I wasn’t confident about having much success with my criminal history,” he recalls. “I’m not very computer literate. I had fallen off with my education, my reading and math.”
With a full schedule of classes and work experience training, Raymond redoubled his commitment to achieving his goals. Raymond says, “I had to clean the streets. I wasn’t particularly crazy about it, but I cleaned the streets and I did a job like I would do in my home. It gave me something to look forward to financially and I was able to give my daughter and my son a few dollars every week.”
Through ACE’s community internship program, Raymond balanced a maintenance internship at a local church with his schedule of classes. The staff there was so impressed with his work and attitude that in July 2016, after 6 months in ACE’s initial program, they offered him a full-time position. Just three months after accepting the job, Raymond had saved enough money to move into his own apartment. “I’m content with what I’m doing right now,” he says. It’s keeping me emotionally alive, keeping me spiritually alive, it’s keeping me mentally alive. I’m happy right now. “
Raymond has now been employed for nine months and in his own apartment for six months. He has a great relationship with his 20 year-old son and is back in his 10 year old daughter’s life, rebuilding bonds. He counts himself fortunate and is incredibly thankful to everyone who helped him get here by supporting ACE.
“I thank God for you and for this organization”
“I was in the cell and I was praying to God, if I could just walk down the block again. And here it is, not even a year later and I have my own apartment. I have a job and am back in mainstream society. I wonder if you truly know what you have done. I thank God for you and I thank God for this organization.”
Kendall was adopted at birth. He grew up in a loving home in Richmond, Virginia. He and his family were regulars at church and his parents were, in his words, “big on work ethic and education.” Kendall describes his upbringing as healthy, but as he got into his late teenage years he and his friends were introduced to alcohol and marijuana. “I went wrong,” Kendall says, “when I decided I liked the feeling of drinking and smoking more than getting an education and working to further my future.”
Kendall had some odd jobs after high school and had a son in his twenties. He loved his son more than anything but couldn’t balance substance use with the responsibilities of adulthood. After missing a court date in Richmond in 1996, he doubled down on his troubled lifestyle. Rather than accept a mandatory three to four-month jail sentence for missing court, Kendall got on a bus out of town. With that begin twenty years of living on street, using, and just getting by.
Reflecting on those years Kendall says, “You let the world pass you by. You’re basically living off the crumbs that society throws away. You look back, and you’re old. You’ve got aches and pains. You haven’t built anything, haven’t saved anything. You have regrets.”
Almost twenty years passed. Kendall visited home once or twice, but his family, knowing he wasn’t in a good place, wasn’t ready to welcome him back. “I missed my father’s funeral,” he recalls. “I wasn’t even aware of it and his whole side of the family lost respect for me. In 2014, Kendall decided enough was enough and he was going to get clean. He joined a treatment program and started to build momentum. In July 2016, Kendall was referred to ACE. He remembers those first days working on ACE maintenance crews, “They put me to work. My body wasn’t used to it. It took a while, but I was glad to have the opportunity and now I thank God every day.”
After almost three months in ACE’s initial program, Project Comeback, Kendall got called into the ACE Job Developer’s office. A local restaurant had reached out looking to fill a position as a porter. The Job Developer wanted to send Kendall for the interview. Kendall was nervous but he went for the interview and got the job. “It’s nothing fancy,” he says, “but I am very happy with my job. It’s the first job I’ve had in twenty years.
Now that he is stable for the first time in years, Kendall is beginning to heal old wounds. “My family is still in Richmond. My son is all grown up and I am trying to patch things up. I’ve burnt a lot of bridges, but I think I can repair the ones with my family. I really consider myself lucky. Thank you.”
We are thrilled to see another amazing ACE Graduate, Benita Rudolph, have her story featured in The New York Times. We are proud to see Benita achieving her goals and know this is just the beginning. Read her story here.