Ex-felons wash away past sins by keeping Germantown streets clean

More than anything, Dante Chilton wants a clean slate.

The 29-year old York, Pa. native has a troubled past but is determined to journey on a brighter course for his future. 

He’s part of a team of six to eight homeless men Germantown Special Services District (GSSD) has contracted to clean the neighborhood’s commercial corridors through Ready Willing and Able, a service-oriented transitional housing program for homeless men.

Five days a week — since November 2013 — the “Men in Blue” clean Germantown Avenue from Coulter to High Streets, Chelten Avenue from Morris to Baynton Streets and multiple side streets in between.

“They are the backbone of the Special Services District, as far as keeping the streets clean,” said GSSD Executive Director, Anthony Dean.

Keeping clean by keeping clean

After serving seven years in prison for armed robbery, Chilton spent a homeless year in his hometown trying to get by on odd jobs. Making a fresh start seemed out of reach, he said.

It’s a common situation, said Jason Miller, Executive Director for Ready Willing and Able (RWA).

Former convicts and the homeless can experience difficulties in finding work and housing without help. The obstacles threaten any chance to make a positive change.

“The biggest thing we’re dealing with here is poverty,” he said.

RWA’s program is a way to remove barriers to rebuilding a life after poor choices.

Sixty-five percent of the men who are accepted into RWA’s year-long program are former convicts. Some, like Chilton, have been violent offenders (though sex offenders are prohibited) but most have been incarcerated for drug related crimes.

The chief criteria, though, is homelessness. No one can enter RWA directly from prison. They must first enter the city’s system for the homeless population and have resided in a shelter for at least 30 days.

Chilton came to Philly after learning of RWA through an aunt who lives in the city. Because of RWA requirement, he signed into a homeless shelter.

But two years passed before he was truly ready to transform his life.

Fed up with the repetitive pattern of waking up just to hustle money for drugs, he finally quit — cold turkey —21 months ago. Breaking that cycle was an important first step, Chilton said.

He says the program has given his once idle life structure. It’s been helping the otherwise reserved, diffident Chilton learn to open up and combat his shyness. Most of all, RWA has helped to keep him clean, by teaching him how to care for himself through proper hygiene and care for others through service. The program also runs drug tests several times a week, he said.

RWA tries to place men in communities where they either have some past connection or have indicated somewhere they hope to move to.

Chilton says his foster mom wants him to come back to York, but he hopes to remain in Philly after graduating RWA’s program. He wants to find steady employment and a home. Through street cleaning service, he feels he’s already making an investment in Germantown and becoming part of the community.

Creating a sense of worthiness

In his former life, Chilton says he wasn’t comfortable with himself and just wanted to smoke his life away. Now, he regularly hears public expression of thanks for the work he does.

“It makes me smile,” he said with a broad grin.

For the “Men in Blue” it’s a huge deal to make a difference, Miller explained. The program creates a sense of worthiness in their lives. The community, in turn, feels it’s worthy too.

Miller says he’s received plenty of positive feedback at Germantown’s community meetings. The overwhelming response has been that RWA is cleaning places that had long been problematic. Folks feel the team’s presence also increases public safety.

Since contracting RWA, the neighborhood’s streets have seen a 99 percent improvement, Dean said. “It’s a great thing for Germantown.”

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