Goddard Riverside’s Green Keepers Find Community While Cleaning Up the Neighborhood

Green Keepers take a short break from work to pose for a photo at 100th and Broadway.

By Carol Tannenhauser

One recent morning, a man stood on the corner of 86th and Amsterdam, holding a paper cup, wearing a sign that read, “Please help.”

That same morning, on the corner of 100th and Broadway, five other men stood, holding brooms and dustpans, wearing green uniforms with vests that read “GODDARD RIVERSIDE GREENKEEPERS.” These men had requested and received a different kind of help: paid employment, offering the support and understanding they need.

Founded in 1995, Green Keepers is Goddard Riverside Community Center’s “social purpose business.” It employs and provides on-the-job training for men and women living with mental illness, many formerly homeless, now residing in supportive housing. Green Keepers performs supplemental sanitation, horticultural and pest control services, mainly on the Upper West Side.

“Everyone is expected to give 100%, but we recognize that one person’s 100% is not the same as another’s,” said Elizabeth Ewell, business manager of Green Keepers. “We meet people where they’re at and bring them to where we can.”

Manny, one of the above crew members, has schizophrenia. Thirty years old, he had his first breakdown when he was 21. He was hospitalized by his family “four or five times” before being referred to Goddard Riverside’s outpatient “Assertive Community Treatment” (ACT) team, which provides intensive psychiatric care and on-going case management for adults with severe mental illness. A longstanding and revered Upper West Side social service agency, Goddard is known for its “continuum of care,” which worked seamlessly in Manny’s case.

“I kept telling them I needed a job,” he recalled. “My son was just born and I had to take care of him. My wife and I are in a family shelter. I needed to save money to get us an apartment.”

He smiled a smile that was impossible not to return.

“So, they got me a job,” he said.

Manny was referred to “TOP Opportunities” (TOP/OP), Goddard’s job-training and placement program. After a probationary period, he was hired by Green Keepers, earning minimum wage, currently $13.50 an hour. When WSR caught up with him, he and his fellow crew members were cleaning their way up the west side of Broadway to 106th Street. 

“It’s messy,” Manny said, “but nothing we can’t handle as a group.”

Ewell calls the Green Keepers the “Green Brotherhood.”

“These are people who have been adrift, not necessarily had anyone they could depend on,” she said. “It’s nice for them to know there are guys in green who’ve got their back. People come to us who don’t have vibrant social lives and that brotherhood is very important, even if it lasts only two hours a day. It could be the last conversation they have when they leave.”

“Another thing about the Green Brotherhood is, they self-check,” Ewell continued. “If someone steps out of line, they’ll talk to him or her.” (There are a handful of women working for Green Keepers.) “They come to understand that when they’re in uniform, they’re not just one person, they’re every other person out there wearing the uniform. This is a real job,” she stressed. “They’re employed by Goddard Riverside, just like I am. A number have gone on to private-sector employment, but the majority have stayed. Six crew members were promoted from within to crew leader positions. We also have one staff supervisor.”

Green Keepers’ customers include Broadway Mall Association, Lincoln Square B.I.D., the Riverside Park Conservancy, and a host of block and neighborhood associations, including West 77th Street, West 88th Street, and West 90th Street. “We also have some private entities,” Ewell added. “We do work on terraces, rooftops, and gardens.” Most of Green Keepers’ expenses, including wages, are covered by contracts. Green Keepers currently employs around 40 people, with a waiting list to be hired.

The way things are going, it should move fast.

“In the past few years, we have had a growth spurt, as a result of our involvement with several citywide initiatives made available to us through our local Councilwoman, Helen Rosenthal,” said Deborah Kaplan, Director of Employment and Rehabilitation Programs at Goddard Riverside. “As a result of Clean Streets NYC, we are providing year-round, five-day-a-week, supplemental sanitation services to the Upper West Side.”

Sarah Crean, Rosenthal’s communications director, explained that every council member has access to Clean Streets NYC funding. Rosenthal is directing her full allocation this year —$220,000 — to Green Keepers. “Our office sits down with them regularly and, based on information from our constituents and staff, we identify areas that should be top priority in terms of cleaning,” Crean said. “Last year’s special cleaning targets were: Broadway between 70th and 86th (on Mondays, focusing on 70th to 79th); 72nd between Columbus and Broadway; Verdi Square; Broadway between 90th and 96th; and the northern end of the district, 106th and below. Possible targets for this fiscal year include new sections of Broadway and Amsterdam.”

Rosenthal is also directing all of her allocated Greener NYC funds — $70,000 — to Green Keepers to perform not just the sanitation and beautification of several NYCHA buildings in the neighborhood, but the all-important job of rat control.

“We are serving NYCHA buildings because of Helen’s support,” Ewell said. “NYCHA’s not paying us.”

“What’s especially important to Helen is that Green Keepers is a local group, creating jobs for folks who might find it difficult to secure employment,” Crean explained. “It also helps to address a concern constituents raise all the time, which is keeping the neighborhood as clean as it can possibly be. It’s a win-win (win).”

WSR visited another Green Keepers crew, this one cleaning up Broadway from 90th to 96th, then, the subway plaza, then, back down Broadway to 90th. A worker named Jerry asked if he could say something:

“This is an experience where everybody talks positive, instead of negative from the past. At the same time, there’s making those little ends meet — the money you earn.”

“I love working for Green Keepers,” a man named Jarlin joined in. “Just coming to work every day is like a routine now that I got,” he said. “I wake up a certain time and gotta be here by 8:30, the latest. It keeps me busy, positive, motivated, and I can help to provide for my son. I’m just trying to do better for myself and give him an example. I’m very grateful and I thank Green Keepers for the opportunity.”

NEWS | 17 comments | permalink
    1. UWSmom says:

      Thank you for profiling these gentlemen. I did not know what they did specifically, but I have seen them around. I have chatted with a few of them and they were always pleasant and friendly. I’m glad they are getting help and helping the neighborhood too.

    2. PedestrianJustice says:

      What a terrific program!
      I’d seen these guys working before but had no idea about the backstory of the organization. Thanks for this story, WSR. And thanks to all of those who are contracting with this motivated crew.

    3. Bruce E. Bernstein says:

      I am so happy to read this. Now i know what the “green vests” are about. I will make sure to thank them and Goddard Riverside the next time i see them.

      This is another outstanding article by Carol Tannenhauser. She never fails to give us insight into various parts of our community we might not otherwise see.

      This also shows why supportive housing is so necessary on the UWS. Rather than a bane, we should see well-run supportive housing as a community strength. Manny and his family should be in permanent supportive housing, not in a “family shelter.”

      And many props to Councilwoman Helen Rosenthal, who is maligned so frequently and so unfairly on these pages. The article made clear how important her role is in this wonderful program.

      • Sherman says:

        Hi Bruce

        Yes, we need to provide more “permanent housing”.

        This way the UWS will attract homeless people from around the country.


        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          Sherman, once again you are proudly displaying ignorance.

          are you aware of how difficult it is to get into permanent affordable housing? a homeless person can’t just hop on a bus in LA, arrive in NYC, and check in.

          meanwhile, people like Manny and his family are left in a shelter, despite the fact that he is working full time. Does this trouble you at all?

    4. whatsupduck says:

      What an incredible story, and a beautifully-penned one at that. Thanks, WSR.

    5. Good going says:

      This is wonderful. This is how it should be–that people work for what they have. These people are part of the solution, & they should be very proud. They could be panhandling like everyone else, but they’re putting themselves to work instead.

    6. RobbieTheK says:

      Yes yes yes! Other neighborhoods take note!

    7. W 67th St says:

      A touching story and an uplifting article. One piece of feedback: the first paragraph seems to malign the unfortunate individual asking for help on 86th Street. Couldn’t you have told the story of the Green Keepers without denigrating this poor man?

      • Sarah says:

        I agree.

      • Carol Tannenhauser says:

        Thank you for your feedback. It was very perceptive. In retrospect, I realize I was, if not “denigrating,” at least, judging the first man’s choice to panhandle, in order to elevate the Green Keepers’ choice to work. What I left out was that I spoke to the first man, who told me he lived in supportive housing, with SSI and food stamps, and was “just doing this for pocket change.” He was middle aged, seemingly sound of body and mind, and quite cheerful. I came away disturbed that he was perpetuating an unfortunate stereotype, while the Green Keepers were working so hard to transcend it. You couldn’t and, perhaps, shouldn’t have known that.

        • Bruce E. Bernstein says:

          Hi Carol,

          re: the panhandler: you are raising some interesting points.

          did you determine if he has other alternatives for how to spend his time? you note there is a waiting list for Green Keepers.

          As an example of some of the real issues: I have become friendly with a regular panhandler on a section of upper Bway near my house. Yes, i give him $1 perhaps 3-4 times a week, but we have friendly interactions whether or not it is a day i give him money. he understands that this is not the basis for our relationship.

          He lives in an excellent supportive housing program. i am familiar with the program and know its quality. i also know they probably are not too crazy about his panhandling, though i don’t think they can stop it. he gets various types of other assistance, but it is really not enough.

          my friend is in his 60s. he is mild mannered, has an excellent sense of humor, and is intelligent. i think he likes a drink now and then but he doesn’t strike me as an alcoholic. he is polite and unobtrusive and does not bother anyone on the street.

          i have tried to speak to him, as a friend, about alternatives he might have to spending his time this way. i don’t think he is aware of any real alternatives, certainly none that will pay, and i haven’t thought of any good ones. i don’t know if he would be physically capable of doing the Green Keepers work 8 hours a day.

          i make it a point, in discussing possible alternatives, not to be offensive or intrusive; i think i have succeeded — no different than speaking with any other friend. He will talk to me about issues at his housing and other personal issues. (he also teases me, effectively, about some of my foibles.) He knows that panhandling is not so great for him. in one sense, i think he sort of likes it: he sits on the street and watches the world go by on Bway, which is fitting for his laid-back personality. i imagine he has multiple relationships similar to the one with me.

          all of this is at odds with how “crazy dangerous panhandlers” are portrayed by some regular WSR commenters. yes, we have some panhandlers on Bway who strike me as aggressive and “not all there”. But most are not. I only give to my friend; but with others, i try to follow the Pope’s admonition to treat them with respect. When they ask, most of the time i look them in the eye, say, “I’m sorry, but i can’t give today; i hope you have a nice day.” 9 times out of 10 they appreciate that and in turn thank me.

          btw, my friend’s supportive housing program is superb, special in certain ways that for privacy i won’t mention here, and deserves coverage. if there is a private way to get in touch with you, i can give you more info.

    8. J.S. says:

      Very interesting article by carol t. It’s certainly a nice program.

    9. Lisa Medoff says:

      Lovely story in these difficult times.
      Thanks for sharing.

    10. Toni says:

      Bravo for the Goddard-Riverside and the Green Keepers!! It would be GREAT for the UWS if these guys could also shovel the snow off the sidewalks at crosswalks in winter. It is often very difficult for folks, especially seniors, to get across the piles of snow and the deep watery holes at these spots. It’s a chronic seasonal problem that no one seems to address.