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June 1, 1997
Who Says the Homeless Should Work?

by Sol Stern
The political arguments often get testy on New York 1's popular evening TV 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, two of the founding fathers of the city's homeless-rights movement. McDonald instantly went on the attack, accusing the city's oldest homeless-advocacy group, the Coalition for the Homeless, 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 and The Doe Fund were exploiting the shelter residents by charging them $65 a week for rent. Dumbfounded by the charges and countercharges, the show's genial, ultraliberal host pleaded, "You're supposed to be on the same side. What's going on here?"

What's going on is a sea change in attitudes toward the homeless. The Coalition and other advocates remain 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. It has been contracting with tough-love programs like The Doe Fund to take over city homeless shelters, a new and, so far, quite successful approach that fundamentally challenges the old culture of dependency. Rejecting the Coalition's insistence that "housing, housing, housing" is the only solution for homelessness, George McDonald's program is based on the premise that the only real answer to the problem is work and personal responsibility. As McDonald recently 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."

George McDonald's public challenge to the Coalition's entitlement philosophy and his unexpected emergence as an ally of the Giuliani administration represent a breathtaking 180-degree political turn. For no one, not even Steven Banks, has agitated more relentlessly in the trenches of the homeless-rights movement than he.

As a middle-class boy growing up in the quiet town of Spring Lake, New Jersey, in an area known as the Irish Riviera, McDonald had absorbed from the nuns who were his teachers an almost religious calling to help the poor. "They taught me," he recalls, "that other people's miseries are your miseries." In this spirit, in his mid- thirties, he abandoned a successful career as a sporting-goods-company executive for full-time social and political activism. A failed candidate during the 1980s in five races for Congress and one for City Council president, he ran each time on one main issue: homelessness. "In New York at the time," he says, "you could walk out of a restaurant after a $200 meal and have to step over a person on the street. The problem just stared you in the face."

By the mid-eighties McDonald had grown so obsessed with the homeless that he moved beyond mere advocacy into sharing his clients' lives. With his savings depleted and no steady source of income, he rented a six-by-nine-foot room in a single-room-occupancy hotel for $55 a week. As an unpaid volunteer for the Coalition for the Homeless, he spent most of his days and nights at Grand Central, feeding the homeless men and women camped out in the terminal's waiting rooms. Several times the Metro-North police arrested him for trespassing. He would also turn up at press conferences, looking shabby, to buttonhole reporters and politicians about the cause.

"I wanted to see what it was like to live in an SRO," McDonald says. "I had what I needed, and there were no distractions, and I was able to spend a lot of time getting the stories of the homeless out to the media. It also helped me, by immersion, figure out what the problem really consisted of. It was an incredibly liberating experience."

To the reporters covering the homeless beat, McDonald's views seemed no different from those of the Coalition's founder, Robert Hayes, who had brought the landmark 1979 Callahan v. Carey lawsuit against the city. The resulting consent decree called into being a vast, unprecedented gulag of drug- and crime-infested government shelters, at a per-person cost of more than $18,000 a year. Not that in the pre-Callahan days there was any shortage of places for people to go for basic sustenance: in addition to a few city-run shelters, there were voluntary agencies like the Salvation Army, and as a last resort, the city's welfare agency provided vouchers for Bowery-style flophouses. To Hayes and his allies, however, this improvised social safety net was inadequate and too uncertain. The unfortunate should not have to rely on the goodwill of the community, they said. Instead, in the time-honored fashion of advocates in New York, they purported to find an unqualified "right to shelter" in the State Constitution, which they succeeded in persuading the courts to enforce.

The Koch administration accepted the consent decree because it believed that an activist judiciary would rule against the city anyway and because many officials were sympathetic to Hayes's argument. Koch's former welfare commissioner William Grinker recalls: "At the time everyone in government thought that this was the right thing to do, that it was something that could be done. Only later was there this sense of, 'What did we get ourselves into?' " The estimated 2,000 single homeless individuals in New York when the consent decree was signed had grown by the mid-1980s to an average of 11,000 occupying city shelter beds on any given day, and as many as 40,000 who used the shelters at some time during the year.

Without a doubt, the consent decree created perverse incentives. Under it, the city couldn't test an applicant for drug or alcohol abuse or ask if he had any financial assets or alternative housing. "Once you make these kinds of guarantees and entitlements, people will use them," says Grinker. "And then it became an alternative living arrangement, even for some working people."

McDonald says that his own experiences in Grand Central made him realize that the remedies offered by the lawsuit were of little help to his homeless flock. "I never believed in the courts setting social policy on this issue," he insists. "I told Bob Hayes at the time that we had to have a political strategy that really did something for these people, that got them back on their feet and into the mainstream." After all, the Callahan for whom Hayes's famous lawsuit was named, an alcoholic who lived under an East River bridge, died on the streets despite Hayes's victory in court.

As one of the most active members of Mayor Dinkins's Commission on the Homeless, McDonald, along with commission chairman Andrew Cuomo, drafted its 1992 final report -- the first official recognition that the policy of one-sided entitlements was a dismal failu

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