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March 30, 1997
Homeless Advocates' Impure Motives

A belief that self-destructive, drug-addicted people are entitled to public support on their own terms.

by Fred Siegel
THE Coalition for the Homeless, a group of radicals remaindered from the Age of Aquarius, are fighting to see to it that the homeless remain as alienated and inactive as possible.

Led by Mary Brosnahan and former Legal Aid lawyer Steven Banks, they have turned their ideological ammunition against The Doe Fund, an organization that successfully integrates homeless adults into the life of the larger society.

In most of the country, George McDonald's Doe Fund programs to employ the homeless would be considered a model social initiative. The Fund's "Ready, Willing and Able" program takes disoriented, often drug-addicted people off the streets and puts them into a structured residential program that teaches them how to turn their lives around.

Audits done both here and in the District of Columbia, where the Fund also operates, suggest that it has achieved a remarkable record of success. Between one-half and three-quarters of those who go through the 9-to-18-month, 12-step program are employed and living on their own three years after they leave Ready, Willing and Able.

Last year the Doe Fund took over a Harlem men's shelter acknowledged by many, including Banks himself, to be a lawless crack den. The Doe Fund turned the shelter around -- but rather than receiving praise, McDonald has been subject to vicious personal attacks for his troubles.

The voluntary Doe program at the Harlem shelter has, according to court papers filed by McDonald, been subject to a campaign of harassment by the Coalition for the Homeless and Anthony Miller, a former shelter resident whose gang is said to have run the show there before Doe took over.

They denounced McDonald to the residents as a "slave master," a "Nazi ripping off poor blacks to make millions for himself." Brosnahan has further asserted, in charges aired on New York 1, that McDonald, a former clothing executive, and his wife each earn more than $100,000 a year.

But when Brosnahan's lawyer, the Raskolnikov-like Steven Banks, appeared on New York 1, he refused to back up the accusations.

McDonald nearly went broke two years ago when the Giuliani administration cut his city contracts to aid the homeless by 75 percent. McDonald responded by developing the street-cleaning program employing the homeless that ironically later proved to be a model for Giuliani's workfare efforts.

And that's part of the problem -- for the Coalition at least.

Brosnahan's Coalition believes that self-destructive, drug-addicted people are entitled to public support on their own terms. Poor people, they insist, cannot and should not be pushed into work -- what they invariably call "slave labor in dead-end jobs."

By contrast, the Doe programs insist on reciprocity: The public obligation to support the indigent has to be matched by the indigents' willingness to help themselves. This, of course, is the principle behind workfare. Which means that the attack on McDonald is a prelude to an attack on that much larger program.

Banks and Brosnahan have some important allies in their fight to keep the poor infantilized but entitled. According to a forthcoming article by Peter Hellman in the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, Banks has worked hand-in-glove with Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Helen Freedman to see to it that the residents of family shelters are forever entitled to food and housing but never obligated to abide by rules and regulations -- like curfews, drug testing and job training -- that involve taking personal responsibility.

Justice Freedman, explains Hellman, has systematically blocked the state from imposing new rules on the shelters that would allow people to be expelled for "dangerous or disruptive behavior," including drug sales.

In a classic case of rights without responsibilities, Banks and Freedman insist that the homeless have every right to refuse to cooperate in developing "independent living plans" designed to move people out of the shelter system and back into society.

"What I don't understand," states David Reed, a grateful beneficiary of the Ready, Willing and Able program, "is why people would fight against something that's good." It's the right question.

The answer, in large part, is that Banks is one of the intellectual heirs to Francis Fox Piven, the architect of New York's welfare explosion 30 years ago. What Piven and Banks both fear is the discipline associated with work. If the poor change their habits to adapt to society, then they will lose what Banks and Piven cherish most, the power to disrupt what they see as a decadent capitalist society.

The poor are catspaws in the hands of these ideologues. They are important to the Pivens, Brosnahans and Banks of the world not because they need help but because they are potential recruits, human fodder in an ongoing ideological struggle.

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