Melvin, Ravie, Peter and “Tom-Tom” are shooting the breeze at Diversity Plaza. The men — some in plain red T-shirts and black baseball caps to keep the afternoon sun off their brows, others in polo shirts of the same hue with the acronym “ACE” printed on the front and matching caps — lean against a raised planter. Melvin Vizcarrondo, flanked by his “sidekick” Rabindra Persaud and “shadow” Thomas Thomas, lobs a signature pun at Peter Ferguson, who has just returned from the corner store with an iced tea: “Dehydrated? Nah, you’re tea-hydrated!”
They’re taking a break at the end of a long day sweeping streets, emptying trash bins and otherwise cleaning and beautifying Jackson Heights. Relative veterans at the Association of Community Employment Programs (ACE), they also guide the newer guys, Bruce Taylor and Jason (who did not share his last name for privacy reasons) around the job as needed.
Twice a week, ACE participants like this playful group of workers serve more than 60 New York City neighborhoods. They’re also students at the program headquarters in Long Island City, taking job readiness training such as “ACE the Workplace” alongside refresher courses like “Words that Work” and “Math that Matters” and the occasional mind-body connection class.
At a time when advocates and analysts are calling for more workforce development for newly arriving migrants in New York City, and when critics carp about the lack of services for unhoused people who aren’t migrants, ACE has been helping those with a history of homelessness get the educational, interpersonal and technical skills they need for full-time employment.
And during a surge in substance misuse — and Covid-era worsening of existing racial and ethnic disparities in overdoses, overdose-related deaths and incarceration — ACE is also serving participants with histories of incarceration and addiction. To recruit for its programs, ACE partners with inpatient substance use treatment providers, such as Phoenix House and Serendipity, as well as outpatient treatment centers, including clinics run by Mount Sinai Beth Israel and Bronx Lebanon Hospital. Counselors at shelters and transitional housing sites also refer potential participants to ACE.
To place ACE participants in paid part-time jobs that match their skills and goals, the organization partners with places like Saint Patrick’s Old Cathedral in Soho and councilmembers’ offices for sanitation internships. They also offer retail internships at CVS and at small businesses. ACE also has placements at its offices for participants looking to list administrative skills on their resumes.
“We always make sure we’re agile enough to meet the need,” says Elizabeth McNierney, the ACE programs director. “We have not lost who we are, that family feel. No matter how we grow, [we hope] it stays intimate and safe for people and a place that our graduates want to be involved in and stay connected to.”
During McNierney’s conversation with Epicenter, three graduates stop by her office to catch up. One is David Stewart, 59, a part-time Hip-Hop artist and full-time peer counselor at Argus Community, a substance misuse treatment center that also works on issues like housing and welfare. Stewart, who now helps others navigate issues he once struggled with, made his umpteenth divine deal during his ACE journey: if he got out of the hole he was in with addiction, he would serve God for life and help others like him get out of the “murky trenches.”
“I go into some of the neighborhoods I was once in myself … Drugtown USA, everywhere I found a way to use [substances],” Stewart says. “There was a time in my life I could not go into those areas because they caused such a turmoil in my soul, but now I can go and not see it the same way.”
On a September morning at the headquarters, ACE instructor Nadine Gorelik reviews job training and certification pathways with participants whose work goals range from construction to culinary roles. She does so with help from participants who have already gone through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) or other city agencies for training.
“It nearly killed me, but I did it!” says one woman about getting her certifications, grinning.
Gorelik’s real talk doubles as motivational mini-speeches: “Can we send anybody to college? No, we can’t afford that. But if there’s a reasonable cost for a certification, I don’t want you to be shy and ask! I can’t promise, but I want you to be optimistic that we’ll finance it.”
Gorelik has a taker, a man named Larry who asks if he could procure paid training to be a tour guide. He’s the first person to ask about this particular pursuit during the instructor’s four years at ACE. She encourages Larry to look up the details.
She also doesn’t shy away from the fact that ACE doesn’t have the budget to hire everyone in their Project Comeback cohort, but that they should put their red caps in the ring if they’re interested in a supervisory role post-graduation.
“It’s a long shot!” one participant calls out. As the class ends, others ask a classmate about his barista training some months back.
In many ways, this combination of helping hands, reality checks and empowering directives is ACE’s brand. Solo time in the computer lab is encouraged but also scheduled into their training days as a “Surfing the Web” course with a job developer who can help them with applications or training sign-ups. Each participant is paired with a coach who mentors them throughout their program journey, helping them navigate work, class and readiness for the world outside ACE. And participants are pretty open with peer knowledge-sharing.
Harry García, a 48-year-old Sunset Park resident who sports a business suit and “fancy pants” at the computer lab, credits his ACE coach, Paula Frankl, and his peer cohort for much of his success. Frankl listened to García’s story, his goals, and encouraged him to train as a recovery coach. Sweeping the streets, he found joy in simple pleasures such as greetings from passersby, or the occasional free bottle of water or Coke from a small business owner. At “school,” mock interviews were pure fun. So was the feeling he had around peers — positive vibes validated by the mood stones he carries everywhere.
Now he’s on a yearlong mission to complete 40 certifications so he can help people in everything from administering CPR to Narcan to mental health support. Outside ACE, García plays basketball with his 19-year-old son before the teen leaves to join the Air Force. He wants to make up for the relationship they partly lost while García was getting his life back on track.
“In life there are many battles — and you win some and you lose some — and ACE is helping me win the war,” he tells Epicenter. “Right now the streets are very dangerous for people like me, with substance use disorder, and securing full-time employment would help me win that war.”
Sidley O’Neal, a 49-year-old resident of the Lower East Side who hails from Trinidad and Tobago, learned about ACE through a friend. O’Neal tried it out in April 2023, finding the program to be “homey,” and has since obtained a food handlers license and barista training certification.
He remembers the halal business owners who sometimes offered him free meals or drinks for cleaning around their carts when he worked in Long Island City.
“That’s one of the things that I looked forward to sometimes — when it’s really hot out and you’re sweating bullets and somebody walks up to you and asks if you’d like a cold water,” O’Neal says. “To see that they were even paying attention to me knowing that I’m cleaning their neighborhood like that.”
Maritsa Cosme, a recent graduate and quality control officer at ACE, understands the power of this visibility during and after the program. After “running the streets,” she joined ACE as a participant and earned an award for best employee. Post-graduation, she continued custodial services at Fordham Plaza, maintaining the bus terminal there. Everything she knows, she learned from supervisors who took her along with them in their trucks.
“A lot of [people] think that all we do is sweep and change the garbage cans and they look at us like a maintenance person,” Cosme says. “They don’t know that in this program you can meet whatever goal you want — it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re gonna get into maintenance.”
But the most visible part of ACE is still the sight of participants beautifying more than 2,100 blocks across the city. Back in Diversity Plaza, Peter Ferguson, a resident of Flatbush who has worked with ACE for the past eight years, chats about his famous jerk chicken. Melvin Vizcarrondo, who is also on an eight-year streak at ACE, went through a lot of false starts before finally finding a home at ACE. Rabindra Persaud, who has been at ACE for about a year and a half, notices he’s better able to manage his anger.
“He’s a great guy!” says one passerby, touching Tom-Tom’s right shoulder before continuing to stroll down Diversity Plaza. Tom-Tom smiles sideways. He has been at ACE for three years, and while he’s a man of few words, he shows Epicenter his playful “twist” moves while pulling a trash bin.
Then he turns to glove himself for his last rounds of trash pick-ups and bin replacements. The trash receptacle wheels roll past the halal stands and colorful carts and the acid-yellow tables where his and his co-workers’ bright red shirts don’t stand out.
This is part of a series of articles exploring health inequities in New York funded by a grant from the Commonwealth Fund.