The once homeless return to help clean Miami’s mean streets

07/24/2014 7:24 PM

07/24/2014 7:58 PM

Eugene Gordon knows the streets of downtown Miami very well.

Homeless until a few years ago, Gordon often spent time rummaging through garbage bins looking for his next meal.

Gordon was back Wednesday afternoon, picking up trash on one of those familiar blocks.

But this time, no longer in need of food or shelter, he was working to clean up the streets he once wandered to survive.

Gordon, 55, is a supervisor for the Miami Downtown Enhancement Team, a rehabilitation program founded to provide formerly homeless individuals with jobs that help revitalize and maintain the appearance of the downtown community.

“This program taught me how to live again, be responsible and become a productive member of society,” said Gordon, who joined the program in its first year.

In nearly eight years, the nine-month program has provided work for more than 275 people and 139 have successfully completed it, with several others finishing early after finding other employment or regaining the means to pursue an education.

Dressed in bright yellow uniforms, the 26-member team spent Wednesday afternoon picking up litter, installing and maintaining plants and trees along the sidewalks and cleaning up graffiti along Flagler Street in downtown.

The team does sidewalk pressure washing, trash receptacle maintenance and general paint maintenance on traffic poles and street lights seven days a week.

“Out of all the money the DDA spends, to me this is the best use of it by far,” said Jose Goyanes, a downtown business owner and board member of the Downtown Development Authority. “It’s tough for these guys just to get a job. They’ve had a lot of personal issues. Some of the stuff they deal with in order to beautify this city are things most people would never do.”

The program was founded by the Miami Downtown Development Authority in 2007 in conjunction with Camillus House. The DET employees are paid by Camillus House, which is contracted to administer and recruit personnel, who then receive on-the-job training.

Some employees, like 34-year old Robert Smith, are already in the process of starting their own businesses.

“It’s a good feeling to go from something nasty to something pure,” said Smith, who is starting his own mobile car wash business. “By doing this job, I feel like I’m being accepted back into society. It’s been a great experience for me.”

Since the program started, more than 11,000 graffiti instances have been removed per year from public structures, more than 17,000 bags of trash have been collected and removed annually and 257 planters are being maintained, according to the Miami DDA.

“It’s a win-win for both the city and the people involved,” said Alyce Robertson, the executive director of the Miami Downtown Development Authority. “They’re training and getting skills and no longer homeless. They’re doing something positive and adding to their job skills to move on into the future.”

Gordon is one of three of the program’s current supervisors along with Richard Sargent and Kevin Garrett, all of whom came through the program as workers after seeking out help from Camillus House to recover from difficult situations.

Sargent, 42, is a former restaurant manager who lost his job and home in recent years after dealing with alcoholism and drug use. These days, he is studying computer science when he’s not working with the program.

Sargent credits his involvement in the program for helping him turn his life around.

“Having this opportunity changed my life,” Sargent said. “I was in a very tough place with drugs and alcohol. This put me in a better place and things have gotten better and better since. I’m just so grateful for the opportunity and I took full advantage of it.”

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