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August 19, 1997
A Fix for Homelessness: Going to Work

An open-minded activist breaks with failed ways

by Sol Stern
ARGUMENTS often get testy on NY1's evening talk-fest, "The Road to City Hall." But it's hard to remember anything quite like the recent confrontation between George McDonald and Steven Banks.

McDonald accused the Coalition for the Homeless, the city's oldest homeless advocacy group, of trying to torpedo the work-training program that his own organization, The Doe Fund, runs for residents of the Harlem Men's Shelter. Banks, the Coalition's high-profile lawyer, countered that McDonald exploits shelter residents by charging them $65 a week for rent.

Dumbfounded, the show's genial host pleaded, "You're supposed to be on the same side. What's going on here?"

What's going on is a sea of change in attitudes toward the homeless. The Coalition remains wholly committed to the entitlement-oriented culture of the old shelter system, along with the belief that the cause of homelessness is a lack of affordable housing. But the Giuliani administration has other ideas: contracting with tough-love programs like The Doe Fund to take over city shelters, a so far successful fundamental challenge to the culture of dependency.

Rejecting the Coalition's insistence on "housing, housing, housing," McDonald's program is based on the premise that the only real answer to homelessness is work and personal responsibility. As he told me, "My experience with homeless people has brought me to the conclusion that they are more capable of helping themselves than I thought; and than the advocates still think."

This is a breathtaking political turn: No one, not even Banks, has agitated more relentlessly in the trenches of the homeless-rights movement than George McDonald. As a middle-class boy growing up in Spring Lake, N.J., he absorbed from the nuns who were his teachers an almost religious calling to help the poor. In this spirit, in his mid 30s, he abandoned a successful executive job for full-time political activism on behalf of the homeless. By the mid '80s, McDonald was sharing his clients' lives: With his savings depleted and no steady income source, he rented a 6' x 9' room in a single-occupancy hotel for $55 a week. He would turn up at press conferences, looking shabby, to buttonhole reporters and politicians about the cause.

To reporters, his views seemed no different from those of Coalition founder Robert Hayes, who had brought the landmark 1979 Callahan v. Carey lawsuit against the city. The resulting consent decree created a vast gulag of drug- and crime-infested government shelters, at a per-person cost above $18,000 a year.

Under the consent decree -- which purported to find a "right to shelter" in the state Constitution -- the city could not test an applicant for drug or alcohol abuse or ask if he had any financial assets or alternative housing.

McDonald says his own experiences made him realize that such remedies were of little help to the homeless.

In 1992, McDonald drafted the final report of Mayor Dinkins' Commission on the Homeless ? the first official recognition that the one-sided entitlement was a dismal failure. It acknowledged that most single adults in the shelters were there not for want of housing but because of drug addiction, mental illness and other dysfunctional behavior. It recommended contracting shelter management out to not-for-profit agencies -- and a new "social contract" between the homeless and the city to strike a "balance of rights and responsibilities."

"There definitely has been a shift in what I believe society has to do for a person," McDonald says. "Now I know that if a guy gets a job, the housing can pretty much take care of itself." He also breaks with orthodoxy by contending that New York offers his charges a sufficiency of jobs.

And talk of "dead-end" jobs infuriates him. "Going to work, even picking up leaves or sweeping the streets, anybody who says that's a dead end doesn't have any understanding of the difference between the work culture -? the free-enterprise culture -? and the welfare culture."

In 1985, McDonald created The Doe Fund ? named for a homeless "Jane Doe" who died that year ? and began a small voluntary shelter program for homeless men in Brooklyn. It enforced strict rules of behavior and offered both a mandatory work program ("Ready, Willing & Able") and a serious job-search program. He contracted with the city's Housing Preservation and Development Department for the program's men to do clean-up and small repairs in city-owned buildings.

When the Giuliani administration faced its first budget crunch, McDonald found that Doe would lose almost a third of its $1.5 million in city contracts. But instead of joining the long line noisily protesting the "heartless" administration, he looked for a new market niche. The filthy condition of the streets and sidewalks near the fund's East 84th Street headquarters sparked a brainstorm: Why not have the men in the program clean the streets and then hope the community would help support that service?

Soon, crews from the shelter, neatly dressed in blue jumpsuits, were sweeping up refuse along the major Upper East Side arteries. Appreciative letters began arriving from local merchants and citizens, many with checks enclosed.

Two years ago, the Giuliani administration began implementing the Cuomo Commission's call to turn management of the city shelters over to not-for-profits. In May '96 it chose The Doe Fund to run the 200-bed Harlem Men's Shelter. In less than a year McDonald transformed the shelter -- from filthy, drug-infested, and hopeless to a clean, drug-free beehive of activity.

The Callahan consent decree is irrelevant to this human recovery community. During a 30-day orientation, each man is confined to the shelter, where he does odd jobs, gets a drug test and sees both substance-abuse and job counselors. He then goes to work full-time on one of the street-cleaning crews or a job assignment in city-owned buildings. If he stays on this assignment, completes the nine- to 12-month program and stays drug-free, he is likely to end up with a job, an apartment or room, and $2,000 in the bank, saved up for him by the shelter out of the $5.50 to $7 in hourly wages from his work assignment. Independent auditors confirm that over half the men who successfully complete the work program end up in regular paying jobs and in their own apartments.

Programs like The Doe Fund suggest that the rotten edifice created by the consent decree and by organizations such as the Coalition for the Homeless is tottering. Maybe now that the first Giuliani term has so effectively recast the debate on welfare there is really a golden opportunity to end the destructive, court-imposed regime of homeless rights.

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