< Return To News Archive
December 1, 1996
A Lifetime's Devotion

Helping the Homeless Find Homes

by Virginia Perlbinder
George McDonald passed out sandwiches to homeless people in Grand Central Terminal for 700 nights in a row between 1984 and 1985.

But the real pivotal moment came a year later when a woman he'd been feeding died on Christmas day.

According to McDonald, her breathing had been labored and she went to the police for help. They threw her out of the station. Later that night she crawled back in and died.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of "Mama Doe's" death -- her real name is still unknown -- and the 10th anniversary of The Doe Fund, an organization that helps homeless people return to the economic and social mainstream by providing them with a home, work and a support system.

McDonald conceived of the idea for The Doe Fund based on his experiences in Grand Central. A successful businessman at the time, McDonald became increasingly empathetic to the needs of the homeless people whom he saw on a regular basis while handing out sandwiches.

"You don't have to be a genius to figure it out," he said. "People would say to me, 'I appreciate the sandwich, but what I really want is a room and job.' I set out to provide housing and work opportunity."

The first residence was built in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, where 70 formerly homeless people lived in and renovated empty apartments for a small income. Since then, the work has expanded to include street sweeping, and there are now sites in Harlem and Washington, D.C.

The Doe Fund has 100 employees and hundreds of residents, and receives money from individuals, foundations, corporations and the government. The basic format, however, has not changed. Residents receive $5 an hour when they begin, and after six to nine months their hourly wage goes up to $6. They pay $50 a week for rent and $15 for room and board. They are required to save $30 a week. After nine months, when that amount has grown to $1,000, The Doe Fund matches it with another $1,000. This allows the residents to have money for first and last month's rent and other moving costs. After 12 months, with their newfound skills and the assistance of staff, workers start looking for a job.

"Everybody said we were crazy to pay them money," said McDonald. "The opposite is true. We created a culture that is a self-help culture. People don't like doing drugs. Crack cocaine is not a nice lifestyle. Work works."

Residents are regularly tested for drugs and those who fail are not allowed to stay. Only 12 percent leave the program on account of drugs.

"You don't have to go to the country and spend 18 months in a drug treatment center," McDonald said. "That, our guys do in the first week of the program."

The results are impressive. McDonald said that 45 to 49 percent of the residents graduate from the program and get permanent, private-sector jobs and market rate apartments. After three years, 50 percent of those are still employed. And those figures don't account for the people who dropped out of the program, but gained enough skills or confidence to find a place in society on their own.

80 percent of The Doe Fund staff members were once participants. Someone that McDonald fed in Grand Central Station is now a case manager. Another member of the original group is the assistant bookkeeper.

On the Upper East Side, where The Doe Fund is located, McDonald said local residents have been enthusiastic about their work. When he went to the Community Board for consent to establish a residence for people with AIDS, he said they were overwhelmingly supportive. And now that residents are sweeping Upper East Side streets, residents actually get to see their tax dollars and donations in action.

"People want to see something that makes sense to them," McDonald said. "A guy sweeping the street makes sense to them."

At that point, he picked up a photograph of a team of sweepers. "Look at their faces," he said. "This is what people see. They love it."

McDonald said he likes being able to interact with homeless people in his neighborhood and actually having a way to help them. He constantly gives out his card and tells people to call if they want work.

"I'm happy to be someone who's fulfilled the promises I've made," he said. "I feel satisfied. I feel like I'm living the life I'm supposed to."

< Return To News Archive ^ back to top