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February 6th, 2007

Swept Away, No More

by Alexandra Schwimmer

img_0157.jpgIn A Neighborhood Of Visionaries, One Man Saw Beyond The Commerce Of Art. Henry Buhl Decided That The Preservation Of The Human Spirit Was Worth More Than Anything He Could Buy.

A common, early morning sight on the streets of SoHo is the all too familiar dark blue t-shirt and baseball cap uniform worn by the neighborhood’s sidewalk sweepers. They carry dustpans with long handles, and wear gloves to pick up trash that is lying about: empty cups of expensive coffee, old papers, losing lottery tickets. In the cold of winter, the men and women in their industrial blue uniforms chip away at ice, working to remove snowdrifts from storefronts. The residents of SoHo associate the sound of dragging trashcans rolling over the uneven cobblestones with their ritualistic morning croissant and cappuccino. Throughout the rest of the day, the sweepers, these guardians of the sidewalks, remain busy keeping the neighborhood litter-free. The metal against stone sounds of trashcan meeting street has become an odd urban music, almost tribal, non-beat for the locals to live by. The stickers on their trash cans read SoHo Partnership; these rolling cans are the constant companion of the sweeper.

Sweepers sometimes yell across street corners to one another, checking on which street they are working next; but other than that, they generally speak quietly amongst themselves, sometimes giving directions to tourists who ask, but mainly get their work done as inconspicuously as possible around the high powered and fast paced daily lives of those who unwittingly pass them by.

“I am the expert on brooms and rolling trash cans,” says Henry Buhl, the man who has purchased each and every one of the cleaning supplies described above, and placed a sweeper’s broom in the hands of the men and women we pass on the street. Mr. Buhl has had the biggest effect on the cleanliness of SoHo’s streets during the past fifteen years. As the founder of the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless, a company known around the neighborhood as A.C.E., or, The SoHo Partnership, Mr. Buhl has helped to maintain our neighborhood. He has also been the driving force in turning around countless lives–all for the better. A.C.E. is a self-described, “not-for-profit organization that provides the homeless a path to employment and permanent housing through its job training and job placement program.” The men and women involved in A.C.E’s program sweep our streets, remove trash, clean graffiti from our buildings, and even care for our trees.

SoHo has a well respected, and better than most, relationship with its homeless. We are aware of the individuals who have a loft to sleep in but choose to stay out on the street all night. We are also aware of people who do not choose to sleep on the streets. Residents pick and choose between which they give money to. It takes a lot for a SoHo resident to call the police with a complaint about the homeless. Like any neighbor, the homeless person on your block knows your dog’s name and uses it.

The personal relationships that are forged are not strange to locals. SoHo is an international neighborhood visited by millions every year. The harmony that has been created between residents, shop owners, restaurateurs and permanent outdoor dwellers, may appear odd to these visitors, but not other residents of the island. There are secrets to the balance that’s been struck. Most SoHo buildings do not have doormen, so there are minimal, or no rules, about who can and cannot loiter around buildings. Therefore, SoHo residents are responsible for policing their own doorsteps. There is a certain amount of respect paid to someone who may be a resident of the street, without having a residence. Another element to the luxury neighborhood meets a homeless presence, is that we have people who not only care about the homeless, but actually do something about them. Manhattan, and more specifically, SoHo has always been a grassroots experiment in everything from building codes, to how to get an eclectic group of people to live together in harmony. Great thinkers and many a madman have called this neighborhood home. The results of the fusion between creativity and ambition in the area has been the formation of projects and groups that accomplish great things. The association with the most impact on the homeless community in the downtown area, and thus the largest affect on SoHo’s street cleanliness, is Henry Buhl’s ambitious project known as A.C.E.

Funding for A.C.E. comes from private donations from the neighborhood. In the same spirit of taking care of the homeless neighbors on one’s block, the private sector pledge “packages” of money towards the efforts of A.C.E. This street level retail space, as well as entire SoHo buildings, donate to A.C.E. and receive in return street and sidewalk cleaning services. The majority of businesses in SoHo participate in the effort toward clean streets, and the rehabilitation of the homeless community: Apple SoHo, Ann Taylor, Balthazar, The Mercer Hotel, Burberry, Dean and Deluca, Scholastic, Prada USA, and Thompson Chemists are a small sampling of the businesses that hire the men and women of A.C.E to maintain their street fronts. The list of storefronts funding sweeping efforts in the neighborhood has grown from the original twelve on Greene Street and continues to expand today as far as Tribeca.

Mr. Buhl had no experience with social work when he moved to SoHo. In 1993 he began collecting photographs; he purchased an Alfred Stieglitz of Georgia O’Keefe’s hands titled, Hands and Thimble, this became the first in Mr. Buhl’s collection of images and sculptures of the human hand. Stories of art collectors inhabiting SoHo certainly aren’t rare, but the story of a collector turned social worker is almost unheard of!

According to Mr. Buhl, “I walked out of my front door and a familiar homeless man asked me for twenty dollars. I said why do you need twenty dollars from me? You have a job. It turns out another man on the block who had been paying him to clean the street had fired the homeless man for ‘sleeping on the job.'” Upon further inquiry, Mr. Buhl discovered that twelve stores between Prince and Spring Street had been paying the homeless man six hundred dollars a year to clean the block. All of the stores wanted to keep the sweeping service going and were delighted when Mr. Buhl proposed they do just that. Soon, more stores came forward wanting their own sweeper and Mr. Buhl found himself going to a shelter to seek out people for the job. There were shelters all over the city in the early Nineties: shelters for drugs, shelters for alcohol, and psychiatric shelters. Mr. Buhl found himself in the Bowery Residents Committee, then on Chrystie Street, asking the man in charge, “I have a street to sweep, do you have anybody?” “Hallelujah, you could be my savior,” came the ecstatic reply. The man explained to Mr. Buhl that it cost the Bowery Committee about thirty to forty thousand dollars to rehabilitate one person, and that after rehabilitation, nobody would hire the person, which meant they would end up back on the street. It was a horrible cycle. Mr. Buhl pitched his idea of using physical work to rehabilitate someone by giving them a sense of self-worth. By using their own hands to earn a paycheck, people who were now on the fringes of society could be reintroduced and made independent. It was the theory of survival of the fittest, he told the man in charge, that people who use their hands to create and move forward use certain parts of the brain to survive and persist.

Within three months, Mr. Buhl was responsible for eight people cleaning the streets under his supervision. He hired a recently graduated NYU student who held a degree in Social Services. Anything the new graduate knew about social work was more than Mr. Buhl had experience with. “It is not easy to get people to line up and get off of the government dole. I used to go into the shelters myself and talk to the people about wanting their own place to live, their own clothes, their own money, but those who showed up were few and far between. Another time I handed out cards; “for every two hundred cards I handed out, one person showed up.” Mr. Buhl recalls.

The NYU graduate gave advice that led to the creation of classes meant to further the training of A.C.E. participants. The goal of these classes was to give a sense of empowerment to the participants. Today, there are twenty-four classes offered that include topics such as, resume writing, interviewing skills, workplace etiquette, job applications, and conflict resolution. Basic typing and computer skills classes are necessary to progress in the world today, but it is the empowerment gained that allows participants to make the step toward the mainstream. The A.C.E. crew averages about forty men and women and each one of them has to prove something–not only to future employers, but to themselves as well.

A.C.E. is the only not-for-profit organization of its type to have an After Care Program. This means that once people have found themselves jobs and are financially independent again, they can turn to A.C.E. for support after the program is over. This is perhaps the most important part of the program; it makes it easier for the recently rehabilitated to not return to their old cycles and end up back on the streets. About eighty percent of A.C.E. graduates come to the After Care Program, where there are events such as Movie Night, Bowling Night, and even trips to the theater. Before September 11th, records at the After Care Program show that a staggering eighty-six percent of A.C.E. graduates held their new jobs for over two years. After September 11th, this number dropped to a mere, forty percent. While the numbers slowly creep back up, they are still not as high as they were, proving the after shocks of five years ago are continuing to hold things back.

By examining this drop in numbers, one can see how the daily history of our downtown community has left no one unscathed. The ripples that Mr. Buhl started back in 1992 turned to waves and continue to change this and other neighborhoods, its residents and visitors, both in their homes, and on the streets. Mr. Buhl has helped make this very special part of the New York City environment a clean and pleasant one for us to enjoy.

While the Stieglitz photograph of Georgia O’Keefe’s hands was the first in Mr. Buhl’s collection of hands, it is the many hand images and sculptures he has collected since 1993 that make this a cohesive grouping. Each unique hand is highlighted when placed next to the others, so when the collection is viewed as a whole, they maintain their individuality. In a similar way, Mr. Buhl has the ability to pay attention to the singular, and find a way to incorporate it back into the whole by allowing the individual piece to shine in its own right. A human life is a work of art and Mr. Buhl has a gift for spotting the very best. To learn more about A.C.E. and to donate, please go to http://www.ace4homeless.org

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