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March 20, 1997
Keep help for the homeless alive
Anyone who has returned to New York after a decade's absence will quickly recognize one substantial improvement. Ten years ago, Manhattan's streets were full of men with wrecked lives, homeless and with seemingly no way out. Now there is hope for this population everywhere in this city, spurred by a variety of programs that have put homeless men in uniforms and hired them to do necessary work -- the essential first step to regaining control over their lives.

Ready, Willing & Able, a program initiated by homeless advocate George McDonald and The Doe Fund Inc., a city-based non-profit corporation, has been a pioneer in this realm.

Sad to say, the program has its foes. The Coalition for the Homeless, a left-wing advocacy group headed by Mary Brosnahan, has long pushed the line that what the homeless need is "housing, housing, housing." Lately, it's been trying to thwart Ready, Willing & Able by sending Coalition members into the Harlem Men's Shelter and using inflammatory race-based rhetoric to attack the program and discourage its participants.

That, at least, is what The Doe Fund contends in a lawsuit filed Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, and the complaint rings true.

McDonald and the Doe Fund have always had a more realistic sense of how the myriad problems of these men could be addressed than the left-wing advocates who claimed that the homeless only needed "housing."

Ready, Willing & Able pays shelter residents more than $6 per hour to help maintain city-owned housing stock -- provided that they participate in drug counseling, pay rent and save money in order eventually to secure apartments of their own.

This strategy apparently has proved more than Brosnahan & Co. can bear. According to the suit, the Coalition has been attempting to foment unrest among program participants -- regularly interrupting meetings at the Harlem shelter and, on one occasion, terming McDonald a "Nazi ripping off poor blacks to make millions for himself."

The gratuitous injection of race into political discussion in New York City is usually a sure sign that an argument can't be won on substance. In that light, consider Brosnahan's assessment of the (entirely voluntary) Ready, Willing & Able program: "You're talking about indentured servitude, a return to the poorhouses."

Happily, social policy discussions are not conducted on the same plane that they were 10 years ago.

Most New Yorkers now know that homelessness is not caused by lack of housing, and cannot be solved by providing apartments. More often than not, homeless men are afflicted by multiple pathologies, including drug addiction and bouts of mental illness. What they need, often most of all, is structure in their lives.

The Coalition's efforts to undermine The Doe Fund's efforts to provide some of that structure strikes us as the height of cynicism.

New Yorkers who care about the homeless have an interest in a Doe Fund victory in court.

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