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December 29, 1994
'Mama Doe' Remembered

by Schlomo Mantz
On Christmas morning, while many New Yorkers were opening presents in the comfort of their homes, a group of homeless people and activists gathered in Grand Central Station to remember "Mama" Doe, the homeless woman who died in the train station in 1985.

George McDonald, chairman of The Doe Fund, told Mama's story. On the cold, snowy Christmas of 1985, Metro North police forced homeless people, including Mama, out of Grand Central Station. Later that night they allowed her back in, but only in time for her to lay down on a bench and die.

Police officers discovered she was dead when they tried to wake her up by banging their clubs on the bench.

McDonald and others had Mama buried in Queens, beneath a stone engraved "Home at last." Her actual name was never known, hence the last name "Doe." "What happened to her should never happen again," McDonald said.

The group stood in a circle holding candles and hymnal sheets beneath the twinkling wreaths and trees adorning the station. They began by singing "Amazing Grace." Clusters of holiday travelers peered at them curiously or drifted over to join in.

Father David Kirk of Emmaus House, an East Harlem community center run by and for the homeless, read an eloquent prayer. "Who killed the homeless?" he asked. "'Not I,' said the wealthy and warm as they rushed to the train. 'Not I,' said the TV reporters, who take your picture and say ?God bless you.'"

"The homeless situation gets worse every year," said McDonald. The Doe Fund, named after Mama, operates at a community center in Bedford-Stuyvesant and aids the homeless by providing training and jobs as workers for Business Improvement Districts throughout the city. "We've shown that if you give homeless people an opportunity, they take advantage of it." McDonald said.

Norman Siegel, director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, noted that the Giuliani Administration has made it a crime for people to panhandle aggressively. "How can we put people in jail for panhandling?" he asked. He also faulted the Giuliani Administration for emphasizing superficial solutions. "A shelter is not a home, not a solution," he said. "We need halfway houses and genuine opportunities."

Rights of the homeless are threatened on several fronts, said Siegel; police will arrest them for sitting down in Grand Central Station, but will not bother ordinary travelers.

The NYCLU also defends homeless advocates. McDonald has been arrested four times for distributing supplies to the homeless. When the NYCLU challenged this, the city prohibited the distribution of any free materials in Grand Central Station.

Pete, a homeless man who participated in the gathering, said that robbery is a constant threat at shelters due to lack of security. "Anytime you're there, you have to be careful -- people try to take your stuff." He said he has tried to get housing but was deterred by a waiting list of several years.

He said he became homeless after being laid off from a moving job several years ago. Unemployment ran out, and he was unable to find another job.

Michael Johnson, another homeless man at the event, said he has been pushed out by police repeatedly. "They'll push you out just because of how you look."

Siegel said that the public's attitude towards the homeless has worsened in recent years. New laws have been passed against homeless behavior, even though existing laws already deal with issues like harassment. The effect of the new law is to "demonize the homeless, marginalize them. This is the first time in my life that the mayor has turned the middle class against the poor," Siegel said.

The memorial closed with the singing of "Silent Night," and the prayer of St. Francis: "Lord, where there is hatred, let me sow love, where there is despair, hope."

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