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February 6, 2013
How to Solve Homelessness

The Mundane Miracles of The Doe Fund

by Hamilton Nolan

The next mayor of New York City will not be George McDonald, though George McDonald is running for mayor. That's OK. George McDonald is already better than any mayor has ever been at addressing the most obstinate social problems in this city's modern history.

Homelessness. Poverty. Unemployment. These problems are usually seen as intractable, overwhelming, and hopelessly complex. They certainly can be, for those suffering their effects. But solving these problems is not a mystery at all. There is a nonprofit group in New York City called The Doe Fund that has developed perhaps the single most effective formula in existence for moving people from the streets to productive society.

Here is what they do: They take in homeless people, referred to them by places like Bellevue Hospital. Many of these people are fresh out of prison, with little safety net. They house them. They ensure they're sober and make them abide by a schedule. They give them a job for starters—cleaning up trash around the city, for a month. The men in all-blue jumpsuits you see pushing brooms and emptying trash cans throughout New York are Doe Funders.

After that, the fund gives them classes in life skills and specific job training (they can choose between pest control, catering, building maintenance, and other specialties) for the next six months or so. There are mock job interviews, to get the pitch right. Then they send each one out to pound the pavement and find a job. When they find a job, they find them a place to live. By the time a year is up, the Doe Fund has transformed a homeless person into an employed person with a place to live.

They have not just done this a few times. They have done this thousands and thousands and thousands of times, for a quarter century. Their plan works. Right under the noses of New Yorkers, the intractable problems of homelessness and poverty are being solved every day. All because George McDonald got curious.

It was the '80s. George McDonald, a veteran campaign worker in Democratic politics in New York (who warmly recalls palling around with Joe Namath back when the city was fun) asked himself: How is it that people are starving—starving to death—in the middle of America's greatest metropolis? "People were littered all over the city. Homeless people were dying when garbage trucks scooped them up, thinking they were trash," he says. "How can this be?"

In what has now become official lore, McDonald was shocked to hear of the wintertime death of a homeless woman, right outside Grand Central, in the heart of Manhattan. Even in the '80s, when the city was not the monied playland it is now, it struck him as unconscionable. He went down to see for himself, "out of political curiosity." It may be hard to picture, as Grand Central celebrates its centennial this year as an upscale architectural marvel, but in the mid-80s, it was a hub for the homeless, a public space where the city's indigent flocked to stay out of the cold. Imagine replacing each iPad in the current Grand Central Apple Store with a homeless person. The situation was dire.

On his own initiative, and with the help of a lawyer friend who played fundraiser, George McDonald started going to the corner of 43rd St. and Vanderbilt every night at 10 p.m. and feeding the homeless. While he was doing this, the crack epidemic struck. Small mountain of crack vials covered the streets. He was dealing with desperate and dangerous addicts. In the course of running his ad hoc and officially unsanctioned program, he was arrested several times (though never convicted) for disorderly conduct—basically, being a nuisance. Still, he went on feeding the homeless, for 700 days in a row. He talked to them. What did they want? "What they really wanted was a room, and a job to pay for it."

So McDonald decided to devise a way to give homeless people a room, and a job to pay for it. After nearly two years of firsthand work on 43rd Street, he had developed a bit of a public profile. The papers had discovered him. He was the sort of perma-advocate that reporters could reliably turn to when they needed to write something about the homeless issue. "I was an advocate, meaning a critic, of the government," McDonald says. "I became a thorn in Ed Koch's posterior. They said, 'Give him what he wants, and he'll fail.'"

What he wanted, and got, was a city contract, to do repair work on city-owned apartment buildings. He found a facility in Bed-Stuy to house 70 formerly homeless people, and put them to work. That was in the late '80s. Today, The Doe Fund now has three main residential "Ready, Willing, and Able" facilities in Harlem, Bed-Stuy, and Bushwick, serving 700 formerly homeless people. They staff their own businesses—if you need exterminators, why not use Pest at Rest, and help some formerly homeless people as you kill bedbugs?. They've survived the ups and downs of life in the public/private nonprofit world; during the Giuliani years, their city funding was at one point cut in half. Yet here they are.

The problems that the Doe Fund solves are not the type of problems that get better on their own. Right now, the group is seeing more and more military veterans come through its doors, and runs a special program targeted at them. Also of concern: the crack baby generation of the 1980s is now coming of age. Children born to crack-addicted mothers in the drug's heyday, many of whom have spent their lives in foster care and in the criminal justice system, are now over 18, presenting an entirely new challenge that has no easy answers. (Though the physiological damage done to crack babies may not be as bad as feared, the havoc wreaked on the family structure of that generation is not a subject of debate.) America's default answer to these problems has lately been "more incarceration." That is one of the things that's gotten us here in the first place. McDonald places mass incarceration atop his list of reasons for the persistence of poverty and homelessness. "Racism has a lot to do with why prisons are full of people of color."

Put simply, the problems that the Doe Fund solves are people. People without homes or jobs or an entree into society that would allow them to secure those things. People like Bronson Mims, a baby-faced 27 year-old. Wearing a grey Polo sweater over a button-up shirt and sitting at a table in the wood-paneled library of the Doe Fund's Bushwick facility, he looks for all the world like a nervous teenager at a J. Crew job interview.

In reality, MIims has lived through hell. He went into the foster-care system in Utica, New York at the age of eight. He went to a youth detention home at the age of twelve. At 13, he ran away from foster care, and at 14, he had himself declared emancipated by a court—taking care of himself. He got his own place. "I swept a lotta floors, washed a lotta dishes, babysat a lotta kids." At 16, he went back to jail, for robbery. There he stayed for more than four years.

When he got out, he went to school for a bit, then dropped out to work; while he was at it, he helped his grandmother get clean from drugs. After a few years, he grew sick of the same people, places, and things in Utica, and came to New York City last summer with three changes of clothes, planning a "temporary" stay with a friend. He found the friend's place to be just as bad as Utica—a weed-smoke-filled dump—so he started sleeping out in Bryant Park. "It was really nice," he remembers. "But when it starts raining out, you have nowhere to go."

In late summer he ended up at Bellevue, which processed him into the city's homeless system, and was wooed into the Doe Fund by a recruiter in Brooklyn. When he was first sent out to clean up trash in Hudson River Park, he had an atypical reaction. "It was very organic," he says, a smile crossing his face. "It was beautiful."

Months into his program, Mims has gotten certified as a security guard, and he hopes to turn that into a full time job. He's a work in progress. For an example of a finished product, the Doe Fund's PR person, Madeline Kaye, introduced me to Duane Fagan. A middle-aged father of four with a bald head and a graying mustache, born and raised in Brooklyn, Fagan came to the Doe Fund in October of 2009, fresh off eight years in prison. Upon his parole, "my plans fell through at the last minute," says Fagan. "The economy was messed up. Jobs was at a real minimum at the time." Unlike Mims, he was not charmed by his first day of cleanup duty, which coincided with the New York Marathon—due to street closures, he was forced to walk from 84th St. to 58th St and back up again to finish his route. "I said, 'I can't do this!'"

With encouragement from his daughters, though, he stayed in the program. "They said, 'Dad, you ain't got nothing better to do," he says. He took computer skills classes. He took financial skills classes. He did building maintenance training. He made friends. And, after some time in the program, he won an award for "Outstanding Client Achievement." It was the first award he'd ever won in his life. He was inspired. (The other thing in his life that gave him confidence: quitting cigarettes after 32 years, while in prison. "If I can do that, I can do anything.")

He graduated from the Doe Fund's program and found a job, but decided to come back and work as a graduate service adviser, helping the trainees transition from the program out into the world. "They got separation anxiety," he says. "It's like the father bird kicking the baby bird out of the nest." Now he wears a tie to work.

The Doe Fund traffics in stories like this, mundane miracles. They are stories of a deliberate, rule-based, common sense, step-by-step process that successfully solves society's thorniest social and economic problems. At any given time, 700 people are making their way through this process, on a yearlong journey from Having Nothing to Having Something. It would be dismissed as cartoonishly simplistic were it not for the decades of evidence that it works. And all of it exists because George McDonald—just some guy, really, not a radical revolutionary or professional camera-hogging pundit, just some guy who thought homelessness in his city was troubling—went out, with the help of some close friends and confidantes, and built it. The demand for the Doe Fund's services has always exceeded its resources by a wide margin.

And that is why George McDonald is running for mayor of New York. Not to enrich the Doe Fund per se, but to ensure that the issues that the Doe Fund addresses are a part of the political dialogue. McDonald's candidacy announcement drew a crop of stories about him and his work; his campaigning, and presumably his debate appearances, will do the same thing. Each story is a knock on the front door of public attention. It's not easy to do PR for issues of poverty, which never go away, change at imperceptible rates, and lack easy news hooks. A mayoral run is a nifty way to make people take notice.

No, he won't win—particularly not as a Republican, which he became last summer because he perceived the party as having a softer mayoral candidate field. But in a race featuring billionaires and career politicians, McDonald can bend the municipal conversation towards the 99% in the same way that Occupy did on a national scale last year. Imagine if, for example, instead of giving the Doe Fund a third of its budget, the government gave the Doe Fund, say, 1,000 percent of its current budget? It's not an impossible figure. You could increase the group's current $50 million budget by half and still not fill the projected funding gap for NYC homeless shelters in 2013. What if, instead of housing and feeding and job-training 700 formerly homeless men, the Doe Fund could do that for 7,000 men, and women? Or more?

There are nearly 50,000 people in NYC homeless shelters each night. There is no shortage of clients. In a perfect world, the social services that the Doe Fund provides would be performed by the government. In an imperfect world, the more funding that the group can attract, the more of a bite it can take out of a homeless population that has been steadily rising since even before the recession hit. George McDonald knows how to serve people who have not been served by our system at all, and how to help them succeed. "Raising money was never easy," McDonald says with a sigh. Imagine if he had the resources not of a nonprofit, but of an entire city behind him.

A 2010 study by a Harvard researcher found that graduates of the Doe Fund are far less likely to commit violent felonies than other people recently released from prison; and that the program more than pays for itself through "social benefits" like lower recidivism rates. It is a program that can appeal to bleeding heart liberals and staunch conservative personal responsibility advocates alike. A hand up, not a handout, and all that jazz. Not a charity so much as an on-ramp to a stable life. "A job is the American social program," says McDonald. His model can work not just in New York, but anywhere. It just needs the money, and the political will.

George McDonald will not be New York City's next mayor. But New York City's next mayor should listen to George McDonald, just like George McDonald listened to homeless people in Grand Central when he wanted to find out what they needed. A room, and a job to pay for it. That still seems to work.


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