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December 25, 2007
Redemption for the homeless, under Grand Central's stars

by George McDonald
Today, restored and rededicated, Grand Central Terminal is known as the heart of New York City. But I remember 22 years ago, when our city was ailing. The constellations on the station's domed ceiling were barely visible through the layers of grime. And commuters rushed to catch their trains hoping to avoid contact with the homeless people who camped there.

As a volunteer, I spent 700 nights in a row feeding and befriending those who called Grand Central home. In those days, the only way we knew to help was to hand out sandwiches or offer a cot for a night in a dangerous, drug-infested shelter.

Homelessness seemed incurable. Those who had succumbed to it were vilified for personifying the sad conditions of our city. Even to us, their advocates, they were victims who needed protection, incapable of doing for themselves.

I remember one of them, Tina Haluska, a young girl as beautiful and bright as those stars on that domed ceiling are today - a throwaway child, left to fend for herself in that terminal.

I remember another, Lee Stringer, using a pencil to scrape the residue of crack out of his pipe in his home under track No.109.

Most of all, I remember Mama - an elderly woman who spent her days and nights sitting on a box. On Christmas Eve 1985, along with the usual sandwich, I gave her a scarf in a gift-wrapped box. At closing time, the transit police forced her and the other homeless people out, as they did every night. She slept out in the freezing cold on a nearby subway grate.

The next morning - Christmas morning - she crawled back inside and died on a bench. In her hand was the scarf I had given her.

In my heart was a piercing outrage that transformed me and solidified what has become a life-long commitment to give the homeless something more than a sandwich.

From the people in Grand Central I learned that, although they appreciated the food, the shelter and the kindness, what they really wanted was a room of their own and a job to pay for it. These unkempt castaways were human beings with the same basic needs as everyone else. They wanted a chance to change their lives, give up drugs and go to work.

That was the challenge: to find a different way to help these unfortunates, who, deep down, wanted a hand up, not a handout.

To answer that call, we started the Doe Fund. With a contract from the city, we hired the homeless to renovate city-owned buildings. Instead of shaking cups for change, our crew of workers banged hammers and painted walls. And they did it well - exceeding the performance expectations of our contract.

They proved that what, all these years later, too many people still seem not to understand: Given the chance, homeless people can succeed. Among the pioneers was that throwaway child, Tina Haluska. Since then we have employed thousands of homeless people to do everything from collecting waste cooking oil for recycling into biodiesel fuel to what we are best known for, cleaning city streets.

This Christmas morning at 11a.m., I will stand in the Main Hall of Grand Central Terminal again. I'll be there with my partners Tina, Lee (who no longer uses his pencil to scrape his crack pipe, but to write acclaimed novels such as "Grand Central Winter" and "Sleepaway School") and hundreds of other people who once lived in that terminal.

They will no longer wear ragged clothing, but will stand proudly with their children and families, employed, sober and paying their own rent. We will remember Mama, who died tragically on a bench there 22 years ago. But we'll also celebrate what her death has inspired: a renaissance of personal responsibility and opportunity among some of our city's least fortunate souls. The constellations on that domed ceiling will bear witness to these restored and rededicated human beings.

McDonald is founder and president of the Doe Fund.


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