“We can’t give money to someone who doesn’t apply for it.”
Council Member Ben Kallos
By their very nature, press conferences regarding City Council expense funding allocations are generally rather staid affairs.
But a Dec. 5 announcement on public funding to tidy Upper East Side sidewalks turned into a raucous standoff between the cleanup crews of two nonprofits that each help formerly homeless and incarcerated individuals reenter the workforce through street cleaning jobs.
Next to a litter-strewn tree bed on the East 86th Street sidewalk, the workers of Wildcat Service Corporation — clad in neon green vests, pushing wheeled garbage cans and bearing implements of trash collection — had gathered to celebrate $85,000 in funding allocated to the organization by local Council Member Ben Kallos to clean a number of “problem areas” in the neighborhood.
Then, loudly approaching from the direction of Third Avenue, came the men of the Doe Fund’s street cleanup program in their signature blue uniforms, chanting, “Ready, Willing, Able — Doe Fund for life!”
The advancing Doe Fund lines were met with a retaliatory chorus as two sides met near the entrance to Shake Shack: “We are the Wildcats, the mighty, mighty Wildcats.”
“Doe Fund for life!”
Several minutes of back-and-forth shouting later, the planned press conference ensued.
Kallos explained that as part of a pilot program, Wildcat would deploy a four-person cleanup crew to the Upper East Side four days each week to empty trash cans, clean tree pits and gutters, and sweep sidewalks and bike islands. The Wildcat crew will focus on major cross streets, Kallos said, including 57th, 72nd, 79th, 86th and 96th Streets, and will also experiment with servicing certain sections of First, Second, Third and Lexington Avenues.
“Business owners and residential buildings are responsible for cleaning in front of their buildings,” Kallos said. “That being said, as New Yorkers, we all walk past that piece of litter that we see day in and day out, and we wonder why no one is doing anything about it. I’m hoping that by bringing in Wildcat we’ll actually get to it.”
Wildcat, formed in New York City in 1972, provides cleanup services in 25 City Council districts through the Council’s NYC Cleanup initiative. The organization employs formerly incarcerated people, homeless individuals and others with barriers to employment with the goal of helping them transition into permanent jobs. “We put them to work and we give them a paycheck,” said Mario LaRosa, Wildcat’s manager of operations. “They get what it feels like to have a full-time job, be responsible and so forth.”
Doe Fund protesters repeatedly interrupted Kallos and others who spoke at the press conference with accusations that the pilot program with Wildcat amounts to “taking away jobs” from members of the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able transitional work program, which helps men who have experienced incarceration and homelessness reenter the community and the workforce through street cleaning jobs.
Doe Fund representatives characterized the selection of Wildcat as a “snub” of their organization, which is based on the Upper East Side and provides trash pickup and street cleaning services along several East Side corridors on a pro bono basis. Doe Fund cleanup crews also service other locations throughout New York City through contracts with business improvement districts, management associations, neighborhood associations and other organizations.
Harriet McDonald, who co-founded the Doe Fund along with her husband George McDonald, criticized Kallos for allocating the funding to an organization other than the Doe Fund. “He could have come to us and said, ‘Do you want to expand [the Doe Fund’s service] area?’ Not bring another group in,” she said, adding, “He should have reached out to us and given us the funding, because we have to [privately] raise all this money.”
The Doe Fund was not eligible to receive the funding allocated by Kallos’s office through the City Council’s NYC Cleanup initiative because it never submitted a bid.
“We can’t give money to someone who doesn’t apply for it,” Kallos said.
In past years, the Doe Fund applied for and received funding through the very same program. The Doe Fund was awarded $34,313 in the 2015 fiscal year and $83,211 in the 2016 fiscal year to provide cleanup services in Kallos’s district through the NYC Cleanup initiative. The Doe Fund withdrew its NYC Cleanup services from the district in 2016, citing “a series of hardships and funding shortfalls.” The Doe Fund has not received any Council funding in the last two fiscal years.
In an emailed statement, Doe Fund spokesperson Shannon Moriarty wrote, “We stopped participating in the program in 2016 because, upon analysis of available funding streams and their utilization by the Council, it became clear that the initiative had become focused on pursuing ever-lower bidders for cleaning contracts, as opposed to identifying those organizations who provided the highest quality services or those who provided the best care for the individuals engaging in street cleaning work as part of a program of recovery and community reintegration.”
“ENOUGH WORK TO GO AROUND”
Teams of workers employed by the Doe Fund currently provide cleanup services seven days a week on the Upper East Side on a pro bono basis. The Doe Fund owns and maintains roughly 300 trash cans in the neighborhood, primarily on East End, York, Third and Lexington Avenues. Its service area formerly included First Avenue between 72nd and 82nd Streets as well, but the Doe Fund removed its cans from the corridor after the Wildcat announcement. A Doe Fund spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement that the cans were pulled “to consolidate our activities in the neighborhood and stay out of the way of Wildcat’s services.” Under the pilot program, Wildcat’s service area will include First Avenue between 55th and 72nd Streets and between 82nd and 96th Streets.
Kallos said he is hopeful that the Doe Fund will maintain service along the routes its workers currently patrol, and noted that the routes to be serviced by Wildcat were designed not to overlap with those covered by the Doe Fund. “No one is taking any jobs away from the Doe Fund at all,” Kallos said. “I do not have the power to take any jobs away from the Doe Fund, and we want them to continue.”
A Doe Fund spokesperson said that the organization’s cleanup crews will continue their work in areas not serviced by Wildcat.
Leaders of several local neighborhood groups said that many parts of the district could benefit from the additional cleaning services to be provided by Wildcat.
“I, for one, think that there’s enough work to go around,” said Joanna Cawley, the executive director of Carnegie Hill Neighbors.
Valerie Mason, the president of the East 72nd Street Neighborhood Association, said that her neighborhood has seen an increase in garbage along sidewalks, gutters and tree beds since the opening of Second Avenue subway, and that any additional cleaning services are welcome. “We really feel there is a need, so we’re looking forward to seeing how this works out,” she said.
Andrew Fine, who sits on the board of the East 86th Street Neighborhood Association, said he is hopeful that Wildcat’s services will supplement cleaning work currently done along the 86th Street corridor on a volunteer basis by local residents and by workers funded by the neighborhood association. “We need all the help that we can get, and it’s definitely a plus when we have support beyond ourselves,” he said.
“I was just surprised that Doe took such great offense to another organization cleaning areas that were not competitive with where they were cleaning,” Fine added.
“There seems to be an unlimited supply of garbage,” he said. “Until they run out of garbage, they shouldn’t be fighting.”