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Jamaica mediation group joins city homeless effort

Now Community Mediation Services is teaming up with the city and a host of other groups to tackle homelessness, said Executive Director Mark Kleiman.

"In some ways it's kind of an experiment," he said. "It's a really exciting project because it involves mobilizing the community by creating an alliance of service providers and community leaders."

The project, still in its early phases, is a city initiative started by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to prevent homelessness by addressing problems that could lead to a family or individual sleeping on the street, Kleiman said. Community Mediation Services, a non-profit dispute resolution group, would bring in mediators while another agency, Builders for Family and Youth, would provide caseworkers to connect the clients to other services to help them, he said.

The program also has a built-in emergency fund covered by the city for families to cover the cost of essentials such as food or rent, Kleiman said. There is no set amount on emergency funding per family or per agency.

"About half the money in the program is going to help families avoid homelessness," he said. "If they can't get any other funding sources, this would be a temporary stop-gap measure while we're working with them to stabilize them and get them housing, if it comes to that."

Kleiman founded Community Mediation Services, based at 89-64 163rd St. in Jamaica, in 1983 when conflict resolution programs were still rare, he said. He had been working as a child and teen advocate for Legal Aid in 1980 when he started an adolescent diversion program that placed youth in a mentoring program with students at York College, he said.

"I thought this would be perfect for Queens," Kleiman said. "I went to York College and they bought into it."

As Kleiman started to learn more about mentoring and mediation models, he started to develop other programs, including one of the state's first parent and teen mediation programs, and in 1983 he incorporated Community Mediation Services, he said.

"We are a somewhat complex agency," he said. "It doesn't fall into one category. The centerpiece of the agency is framed around a service that 20 years ago didn't exist."

Over the years a variety of programs have been added, he said. The organization has numerous contracts with government agencies - including the criminal and family courts, the Administration for Children's Services and the Department of Education - to place clients in mediation, mentoring, conflict resolution and training programs, Kleiman said. Community Mediation Services also works with hospitals and other private institutions to train staff as well as community and civic groups to resolve disputes, he said.

"Being well-known in the community for all these years and with mentoring being a very desirable commodity, we get a lot of people looking for help," he said.

The organization started with a handful of workers and has grown to employ nearly 100 people, Kleiman said. The group has had to expand into a new Jamaica Avenue location, he said.

The main mediation areas in both buildings were designed by interior decorator Audrey Matlock, who created minimalist flexible spaces that can be used as waiting rooms, training, meeting and mentoring areas, Kleiman said. Smaller meeting rooms were also designed, and each has a window, soundproofing and a circular table, he said.

"We wanted to create a space that was respectful and that diffused conflict," he said. "The tables help put everyone on a level field."

The spaces, combined with the staff and the programs, help people get to the root of their problems, he said.

"The key is to foster respect, understanding and recognition of the other people," Kleiman said. "Everything we do deals with that. I think it helps make people more human and they're better for it."

Reach reporter Courtney Dentch by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 138.

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