12-step clients on a mission to find work


By James S. Woodman

Visitors entering the New York City Rescue Mission at 90 Lafayette St. will often first encounter a man named Mark, peering up from behind the shelter’s heavy, wooden front desk. He is soft-spoken yet direct, and his full cheeks furnish a natural smile that puts those around him at ease. New visitors, whether the indigent or local volunteers, go through Mark, who is responsible for logging who goes in and out of the shelter, as well as keeping track of the occupancy of the shelter’s 100 bunk beds each day.

Though his kempt professionalism warrants no second glances, Mark, 47, is actually a resident at the mission, trying to kick a nasty alcohol addiction.

Mark had done office work before admitting himself to the mission, but had lost his job as a garage door repair dispatcher to heavy drinking.

“I was getting drunk every night to the point where I just wasn’t going into work, but two days a week,” Mark said. “So, I got fired, and the prospect of living on the street was what brought me here.”

The main goal of many shelters is taking a person who is unable to function in society and turn them into productive, employable people able to make a living. Rehabilitation is one thing, but producing people who can participate in the marketplace is another, and a perhaps more daunting task.

In addition to the mission’s 100 bunk beds and daily free meals for the poor, its “work therapy” program, which placed Mark at the front desk, puts emphasis on adjusting residents to a real-world routine of work by assigning them to jobs around the shelter.

In the weeks preceding his entering the mission, Mark was what you could call a fulltime alcoholic. Mark, who like other Rescue Mission clients interviewed for this article did not disclose his last name, says that his work at the shelter’s reception desk has not only helped to reacclimate him to a consistent schedule but has even supplied him with new skills.

“At my old job, all I had to do was punch in numbers and deal with money. Now I am dealing with people, face to face, and real issues,” Mark said. “So, it’s definitely a more responsible job. When a lot of people come through the door here, they are in a certain degree of crisis, and, in a few instances, I have been their last hope. That’s the hardest part of my job.”

Another aspect of the mission’s effort to equip its residents with skills for a competitive job market is computer training.

“The direction of the workplace is changing, and people are not going to be ready if they don’t have computer skills. So we decided we needed to put something together,” said James McNary, director of the mission’s computer program.

Each resident is required to spend 10 hours a week in the computer lab, but many far exceed the set time, complaining only about the lack of available computers due to the lab’s popularity.

As computer proficiency has become a necessity to those confronting the modern-day workplace, McNary considers the mission’s program a success and major benefit for its graduates.

“A lot of guys that come in here have never touched a computer and some of these guys are really afraid of them. I have run into a lot of guys who are like ‘I ain’t touching this thing’” McNary said. “But we get them started on the computers slowly, let them feel around the programs, and eventually they become more secure in front of a computer.”

A key to many of the resident’s eventual achievement in front of computers, McNary believes, is the freedom that the program gives them to pursue their interests while doing class work.

Melvin — who dropped out of school after the 8th grade to work in a North Carolina cotton mill to support his disabled parents — didn’t go to the mission for its educational opportunities. But once in the routine of computer lab work Melvin, 28, realized that “this is really helpful, important stuff.”

Having an interest in cars, he set to work on a several-page research paper on the history of automobiles, accompanied by his own commentary on which cars he preferred.

Through this process, his reading, writing, touch-typing and problem solving skills have imperceptibly yet substantially improved, he said.

Several months ago, Melvin took the G.E.D., and failed. But last month, he gave it another try, and, though the results were not yet in, he was more positive about his performance on the English section on his latest go, which he attributes to his increased level of online reading.

For Mark, once he discovered the computer lab, he was reminded of a project that, before his addiction, he pursued passionately: a three-quarters-finished fiction novel.

The novel which Mark describes as “part suspense, part history and part mystery” had sat unaltered on his hard drive for years before he went to the mission.

“When I was told about the computer learning center here, a little light went off in my head,” Mark said. “I told myself that if I finished the novel here, at least I can say that I have finished something.”

After working on it for months Mark has completed “Ancestors and Old Lace,” his working title. The book is over 65,000 words and 250 double-spaced pages and Mark is currently sending it to publishers.

Though he is slightly nervous that his past firing could spoil his chances, he hopes to become an elementary school teacher in New York City when he leaves the mission.

Prentiss, 40, another resident of the mission, worked as a gourmet line cook for years while battling a variety of substance abuses. In the mission his work therapy assignment is in the kitchen, which he said has allowed him to express his creativity while maintaining his skills.

Though his current interests and future aspirations lay firmly within the kitchen, his exposure to the mission’s computers has been instrumental to his growth as a chef while in the mission.

“Whenever I have time, I look up anything related to food. I recently printed a 35-page history of culinary arts,” Prentiss said.

Prentiss, who is completing the mission’s 12-step program, hopes to someday move to Atlanta to open a jazz club and restaurant.

“I started working on a business plan on [Microsoft] Word,” he said. “It must be perfect, no errors, whatsoever. [The teachers] are helping me write it, you know, proof reading it, making sure nothing is wrong with it.”

“I’m sharpening myself here for the future,” Prentiss said. “Cooking is what God put me here for, and God willing, that’s what I will do for the rest of my life. Atlanta is where I’m going next.”