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June 13, 1985
Down and out in New York

by Bill Reel
I know, I know, you don't want to read a column about a politician. Politicians are windy and boring, and so are columns about them. But George McDonald of Yorkville, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for City Council president, is different. George is the most unusual politician I've ever met.

For example, instead of campaigning at night, George hands out food to the 150 or so homeless folk who inhabit Grand Central Terminal. A group called Coalition for the Homeless began feeding down-and-outers in Grand Central in February. "I've missed, oh, maybe three nights since then," George, 41, a slim, smiling six-footer, said Tuesday night as he cheerfully lugged a crate loaded with bags containing a sandwich and orange and fruit juice down the Vanderbilt Ave. steps to the terminal. "I enjoy doing this. These people are my friends."

"Hello, George," said an elderly black lady who lives in a telephone booth in the train station. Her friend in the next phone booth, a thin man named Jimmy with a long, black beard, licked his lips loudly and said, "George, I could sure go for a nice steak with French fries tonight."

"Jimmy, I'm afraid you'll have to settle for a bologna sandwich," George replied.

They laughed at their standing joke. Jimmy accepted a sandwich happily. Living in a phone booth keeps expectations realistic.

George introduced me to a woman who said her dinner was stolen the night before, and to a man named John with a broken foot whose crutch had been stolen. George commiserated with them. We went back out to Vanderbilt Ave. to get another crate of food from the Coalition for the Homeless truck. A raggedy line of hungry people, a few of them little children, stretched along the sidewalk from 43d to 42d St.

At the front of the line were a young couple, Jesus and Emma, and their children, Yolanda, 3, and Jessica, eight months. Jesus greeted George heartily. George got him a job this week with Archer Messenger Service. The family was burned out of their home on Trinity Ave. in the South Bronx two days before Christmas. They've lived in shelters since then. They hope to get an apartment now that Jesus is working. I chatted with Jesus and Emma, a friendly, likeable couple. I tried without success to coax a smile from Yolanda, who looked awfully melancholy as she sat on a curb at 10 p.m. waiting for a sandwich for dinner.

How did this happen in New York? The sight of sad-eyed Yolanda, defeated at age 3, mocked our glitzy prosperity and exposed our spiritual bankruptcy.

George McDonald has been noticing our decay for years. He hopes to try to reverse it as City Council president. Once a successful businessman and man about Manhattan, George experienced a spiritual conversion after his second marriage broke up in 1977. He became increasingly aware of his own and society's shortcomings. Wrongs could be righted through the political process, he decided. He ran unsuccessfully for Congress three times in the Silk Stocking district. Now he's aiming for city office as an advocate of decent housing for the poor and middle class.

George follows a self-imposed view of poverty. He owns just two suits. He's lived the past three years in a six-by-nine-foot furnished room at 211 E. 81st St. He persuaded the landlord last year to sell the building for $875,000 to a consortium of Yorkville churches, the Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter. Formerly homeless people now reside in some of the 70 little rooms like his in the building. George is a doer. A prayerful man, he attends Mass several times a week at his parish, St. Ignatius Loyola.

"Will you move out and get a bigger place if you win?" I asked George the other afternoon. I stood in his tiny $55-a-week room. He had to stand out in the hall. There was room for only one of us inside.

"Absolutely not," George said. "I've lived here for three years and I'll continue to live here. I've pledged to give two-thirds of my annual $90,000 salary as Council president to programs for the homeless."

I told you George was an unusual politican.

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