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December 26, 1997
Homeless remembered on holy day

by Paul Schwartzman
Thousands of homeless people lined up for free meals, toys and winter coats yesterday as New Yorkers took time out from their holiday to help the city's neediest.

The Sheraton threw the biggest dinner, serving meals for 2,000 at a Madison Square Garden fete hosted by actor Roddy McDowell, who is appearing as Scrooge in "A Christmas Carol."

Hundreds more were fed at the YMCA at Atlantic and Flatbush Aves. in Brooklyn.

At Grand Central Terminal, advocates for the poor gathered to memorialize Mama Doe, a homeless woman whose death at the station on Christmas Day 12 years ago provoked outrage over the way the city treated its neediest.

George McDonald, founder of The Doe Fund Inc., said city services for the homeless improved much since Mama Doe's death. But he also said that the number of people seeking help is increasing as the city seeks to reduce its welfare rolls.

"I'm starting to see a lot more people out there on church steps, on streets and in other places," McDonald said.

About 7,119 adults seek spots in city homeless shelters on an average night, an increase of 15% from two years ago, he said.

Norman Siegel, head of the New York Civil Liberties Union, a featured speaker at the service for Mama Doe, described Mayor Giuliani as "missing in action" when it comes to the homeless.

"He doesn't go to the shelters, he doesn't go to the EAU [Emergency Assistance Unit]," Siegel said. "This is a mayor who prides himself on being hands-on. Have his hands touched the homeless? No."

Colleen Roche, Giuliani's spokeswoman, said the mayor "has transformed the way services are delivered to the homeless. This administration has expanded homeless outreach.

"Norman Siegel should check his facts before he speaks in public," Roche said.

That debate was not immediately important to Rashid Mahmoud, 53, homeless for large parts of two decades, who now is on the verge of earning a degree in social work from Hunter College.

A decade ago, Mahmoud was living beneath Grand Central Terminal, a netherworld of homeless encampments that was eventually closed down by the police.

"I'm proof that you can turn it around," he said.

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