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June 4, 2003
A Blue Jumpsuit and a Path to Self-Sufficiency

Public Lives

by Lynda Richardson
GEORGE McDONALD walks briskly through the 198-bed shelter for men in Harlem run by the Doe Fund, a nonprofit organization that he founded in 1985. It is payday. Cash. Is that why the men are all smiles, with so many nice things to say? The men are trainees of the fund's Ready, Willing and Able program, the guys in the ubiquitous royal-blue jumpsuits who sweep sidewalks, bag garbage, clear street gutters. They must work for the right to stay in the shelter.

Mr. McDonald, a tall, garrulous man with bushy eyebrows and horn-rimmed glasses, has driven uptown on a recent afternoon from the brownstone that is his office and home on East 84th Street to give a shelter tour and to champion his initiative to put homeless people to work.

His program recently got a big boost when a state appeals court cleared the way for a new 400-bed men's shelter in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The Doe Fund will own and operate the shelter in a 22-year, $176 million city contract that dates from the Giuliani administration. The fund will now run three shelters, including one in Bedford-Stuyvesant, out of about 40 shelters for single adults in New York City.

"I have something to offer the guy when he is laying on the street, and that's a hand up, not a handout," Mr. McDonald says. "I'm extremely excited about the opportunity to be able to expand our program by 400 more men, and to be able to help them accept responsibility and move into this great economic system we have, the larger program called America."

Mr. McDonald, who is 59, can't seem to keep still. He rocks from side to side when standing, and stomps his foot or slaps his thigh when sitting. He carries on like a politician.

Not that he hasn't tried that. A former apparel marketing executive, he sought the Democratic nomination for Congress from the East Side in the 1980's before parlaying his crusade for the homeless into the nonprofit fund. While campaigning, he says, he spent 700 straight nights feeding the homeless in Grand Central Terminal. Among them was a diminutive, white-haired woman who came to be known as Mama Doe after she died of pneumonia in the terminal. Mr. McDonald identified her corpse in the morgue, and named the fund after her.

In the shelter on 155th Street, Mr. McDonald is describing how Ready, Willing and Able has trained 1,500 men and women. He takes an interviewer into an intake room, where a robotic machine is testing urine samples for drugs. He pokes his head into administrative offices and dormitory-style rooms where a few men sit on single beds, tidy rows of shoes beneath their feet. He is joined on the tour by his wife, Harriet Karr-McDonald, a former screenwriter who is the fund's vice president, and a shelter director, Alton Johnson.

Mr. McDonald tosses out questions to the men, most of whom have histories of substance abuse and prison. What was the shelter like before the fund took over management from the city in 1996? Was it crime-infested? Were people using crack? The response: You've got that right, Mr. McDonald.

The fact that Mr. McDonald touts a work-for-shelter policy - the fund pays trainees up to $6.50 an hour - puts him at odds with many homeless services providers, and so does the fact that trainees get evicted from the shelter if they break rules, like missing work assignments or using drugs.

Mr. McDonald believes he is creating self-sufficiency. And he expects good results from the Williamsburg shelter, even though it drew bitter opposition. Business owners and residents worried that crime would go up in the industrial area. Elected officials criticized the city for selecting the Doe Fund under an accelerated bidding process. The Coalition for the Homeless argued that the shelter was not a wise use of taxpayers' money, which would be better spent on permanent housing.

Mentioning criticism from the coalition elicits a strong reaction from Mr. McDonald, who once volunteered for the group. It sort of reminds one of the old vaudeville routine, "Niagara Falls/Slo-o-wly I turned." His face reddens. He lashes out. He calls the group jealous.

"They obviously know you can't take people from off the street and put them into permanent housing, but they are disingenuous with their criticism," Mr. McDonald said. "It really does get my Irish up, I tell you," he added.

MR. McDONALD says his philosophy stems from his background. "I was a businessman, and brought it to bear on a social problem, and I did that because I wanted to be a politician, and somewhere along the line the politics went away."

In his Upper East Side office, there are pictures of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy on the burgundy-colored walls. Mr. McDonald was the statewide director of volunteers for Edward M. Kennedy's presidential campaign in 1980. He says he is a registered Democrat, but describes himself as nonpartisan when it comes to city politics.

Growing up in Spring Lake, N.J., an upper-middle-class enclave, the son of an insurance company executive, he recalls, with some amusement, how the nuns in parochial school used the ruler for more than just measuring. He says they also drilled into him the importance of giving back to the community.

"Why am I this way? I don't know. Go ask the nuns. Go ask God. I know when I see a guy lying in the street, I want to help him up."

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