Homeless Social Enterprise: Street Cleaners Face Market Problems 

June 28, 2011; Source: DNAInfo | Broadway between Canal and Houston Streets in Manhattan’s SoHo is one of the world’s most intense and congested commercial districts. For 20 years, the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless has put four- and five-person teams of street cleaners onto Broadway from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. picking up garbage thrown by tourists and shoppers amid the sometimes wall-to-wall throngs of humanity plying the street. 

As of July 1, the ACE teams will be gone. The businesses on Broadway are just not making donations to ACE the way they used to, according to ACE executive director, Jim Martin. He attributes the problem to foreign-owned chain stores that don’t automatically contribute the way locally-owned mom-and-pop stores used to, and he finds himself “chasing nickels” from store managers because he can’t get to the decision-makers of these foreign-owned chains. 

ACE teams will still work the streets of the West Village, TriBeCa, Nolita, NoHo and other parts of SoHo, but for this part of Broadway, Martin says that the area will be a mess when ACE street cleaners leave. “I know what it’s going to look like when no one’s out there,” he said.

Is the substitution of chain store (or foreign-owned chain store) for local ownership the only factor in play? The ACE action and Martin’s likely accurate prediction of the consequences constitute a powerful statement on the impact of retail chain stores on commercial downtowns, whether in small towns or in Lower Manhattan.

There may also be another factor. The City Council is considering a City Planning Commission proposal to create a SoHo Business Improvement District, a BID, a nonprofit which would have the quasi-governmental powers to exact payments from merchants for services such as the kind of supplementary street cleaning that ACE’s teams of homeless street cleaners provide. If a BID gets established and solicits proposals for street cleaning, ACE plans to offer its services.

But will the foreign-owned chains be any more receptive to paying a BID’s cost than they were for the likely minimal donations required by ACE’s services without the BID? Or does the prospect of a tax-powered BID make merchants less inclined to make charitable donations to service groups like ACE?—Rick Cohen