City Journal

Sol Stern
Who Says the Homeless Should Work?
George McDonald now champions work and responsibility, not housing, as the cure for homelessness. This time he’s right.
Summer 1997

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 failure. It acknowledged that most of the single adults in the shelters were not there for want of housing but because of drug addiction, mental illness, and other dysfunctional behavior. The report recommended that the city contract out management of its shelters to not-for-profit social service agencies and that a "balance of rights and responsibilities" be struck as part of a new "social contract" between the homeless and the city.

McDonald had learned the most important lesson of the streets and the shelters—that work and self-discipline, not whining about society's failings, were what these men needed most. "As a result of that experience, there definitely has been a shift in what I believe society has to do for a person, versus what that person has to do for himself," he says. "Now I know that if a guy gets a job, the housing pretty much can take care of itself."

McDonald contends—breaking once more with advocate orthodoxy—that New York, like the rest of America, offers his charges a sufficiency of jobs. "I believe that motivated people in the city of New York who are drug-free and reliable and show up every day for work can always find opportunity," McDonald told me. "Even with high unemployment rates and all the barriers our people have to overcome—prison records, substance-abuse episodes, and spotty employment histories—still they wind up with jobs, because they are so motivated."

But, as Steven Banks suggested on the New York 1 program, aren't these jobs of the "dead-end" variety, leading nowhere? The concept infuriates McDonald: "Going to work, even picking up leaves or sweeping the streets, anybody who says that's a dead end doesn't have any understanding of the difference between the work culture—the free-enterprise culture—and the welfare culture. I mean, drugs lead to nowhere—to the grave. Yet the attitude of the advocates is, well, the homeless person has a right to lie on the street. The person has a right, a right, a right. That's our basic philosophical difference."

In 1985, McDonald created the Doe Fund—named for a homeless "Jane Doe" who died that year—and he began, in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, a small voluntary shelter program for homeless men based on the concept of personal responsibility. It enforced strict rules of behavior and offered both a mandatory work program, called "Ready, Willing & Able," and a serious job-search program. McDonald had contracted with the city's Housing Preservation and Development Department for the men in his program to do clean-up and small repairs in city-owned buildings. And when Andrew Cuomo joined the Clinton administration as an assistant secretary of Housing and Urban Development, McDonald received HUD grants for giving the homeless job training, along with recognition from Washington.

But when the new Giuliani administration faced its first budget crunch, McDonald found that the Doe Fund would lose almost a third of the $1.5 million it was receiving from city contracts. Instead of joining the long line of social service advocates at City Hall noisily protesting the "heartless" administration and its "devastating" budget cuts, he looked for a new market niche for his organization's services. As he observed the filthy condition of the streets and sidewalks near the fund's East 84th Street headquarters, a brainstorm came to him: why not have the men in the program clean the streets and then hope that the community would respond by helping to support that service? Soon crews from the Bedford-Stuyvesant shelter, dressed in neatly pressed blue jumpsuits, were sweeping up refuse along the Upper East Side's major arteries. Appreciative letters began arriving from local merchants and citizens, many with checks enclosed.

Two years ago the Giuliani administration began implementing the Cuomo Commission recommendations on turning over management of city shelters to not-for-profit organizations. In May 1996 it chose the Doe Fund to run the 200-bed Harlem Men's Shelter, next to the Harlem River on the site of the old Polo Grounds. In less than a year McDonald transformed the shelter. Once filthy, drug-infested, and hopeless, it is now clean, drug-free, and a beehive of activity. By seven o'clock each morning the building has emptied out, with almost all the men off to their job assignments.

The Callahan consent decree is irrelevant to this human recovery community. The only mandate that counts is the contract that each man signs upon entering, laying out his obligations. After being confined to the shelter for a 30-day orientation, during which he does odd jobs, gets a drug test, and sees both substance-abuse and job counselors, he goes to work full-time on one of the street-cleaning crews or a job assignment in city-owned buildings. If he successfully stays on this assignment during the 9 to 12 months it takes to complete the program, and if he remains drug-free, he is likely to end up with a job, an apartment or room, and $2,000 in the bank, saved up for him by the shelter out of the $5.50 to $7.00 an hour in wages he earns from his work assignment.

The culture of the shelter stresses getting residents ready to join the workforce. In the evenings employment counselors help with resumes, interview preparation, and additional training. "If residents learn to stay sober, arrive at work on time, and keep a good attendance record, we can find them jobs," says Sharonann Smith, the fund's professional job developer. "There are a lot of companies that will hire them—not out of charity but because they want reliable workers."

Independent auditors confirm that over half the men who successfully complete the work program end up in regular paying jobs (most in the private sector) and in their own apartments. Graduates include an office assistant at K-III Communications Corporation, a $400-a-week cook at Beefsteak Charlie's, and a $14-an-hour construction worker at the Javits Convention Center. All this costs some $24,000 per resident per year, compared to the less than $20,000 the city spends in its own shelters. But the city pays the Doe Fund only $2.5 million per year, an average of about $13,000 per bed. McDonald's private fund-raising and his program's grants from the federal government make up the difference.

In my visits to the Harlem shelter, I met many men who had been hard-drug users living on the streets in truly desperate straits before they entered the program. Very few of them believed that they could make it back onto their feet without the program. One recent graduate, 47-year-old Luther Harrison, is now a security guard at the Simon & Schuster building in midtown. He told me that he makes about $350 per week, has held the job steadily for almost two years, and lives in a Brooklyn apartment that he shares with a roommate. Before he went into the Doe Fund program, he had been in and out of various shelters and had spent some time living on the streets. "I was drinking and drugging, and I didn't have any self-esteem," he told me. "Finally I got fed up with being homeless. Enough is enough."

I spoke to one Doe Fund worker who was cleaning up my street corner on the West Side, another neighborhood where McDonald's troops now work. A 31-year-old black man named Miles Burke, he had graduated from Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn and then served in the army. After his discharge he got into drugs and crime and ended up serving four years on a felony conviction. After his release he was back on the streets and on drugs again. He spent some time in the shelters, and some in Central Park or on the subways, supporting himself by panhandling and shoplifting. With his life spinning out of control, he heard about the Doe Fund from a relative.

"I was tired," he told me. "I had enough of that kind of life." Now he was up every day at 5:30. By 7:30 he was on Amsterdam Avenue cleaning up and bagging garbage. Working until 3:30, he then headed back to the shelter for his computer classes and Narcotics Anonymous sessions. He was already sending out applications for civil service jobs and for public housing. "I can't be dependent on the Doe Fund," he said. "Eventually you have to leave the shelter and make it on your own. I am not a victim of society or anything like that. I just made some bad choices. But it's the nineties now, and I have my chances to do something for myself."

Out on the streets with the cleaning crews, you can feel the radical cultural impact the program makes. While Miles Burke cleans the street and bags garbage, other homeless men stand in front of stores and banks, shaking their Styrofoam cups and looking for a handout. It has been my impression, however—shared by local storekeepers—that there are fewer of them since the Doe Fund cleaning crews arrived. Could it be that with some homeless men really working in public spaces, it has become more untenable for others to "work" the streets in the old manner?

Programs like the Doe Fund suggest that the rotten edifice created by the consent decree and by organizations such as the Coalition for the Homeless is tottering and needs only a well-placed push. Maybe now, at the end of a first Giuliani administration that has so effectively recast the terms of the city's welfare reform debate, there really is a golden opportunity to end the destructive regime of homeless class rights imposed by the courts.

As George McDonald puts it: "When the history of this issue is written, it will be judged a profound failure that social policy in New York City was set by judges and courts—a profound failure and an incredible waste of resources. Think of all the money that's gone down this rat hole of a shelter system that could have been spent in actually getting people out of the conditions they were in." He knows whereof he speaks.

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