Harriet Karr-McDonald and Jennifer Mitchell join Stephen Eide to discuss The Doe Fund’s efforts to provide work, housing, and vocational training to homeless men in New York City.

Audio Transcript

Stephen Eide: Hello. Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. My name is Stephen Eide. I’m a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor to City Journal. Today, we’re going to be talking about The Doe Fund, a New York City-based social service agency. The Doe Fund works at the intersection of some of the most really pressing challenges that we face today: homelessness, prisoner reentry, workforce development. And just to kind of frame why The Doe Fund’s so important, one of the things that I’ve always thought makes New York City an interesting place is that you often come across really creative and talented people who probably could have succeeded in any field, Wall Street, entertainment, but instead decided to devote their talents to starting a social program, a school or some program working with disadvantaged populations. Famous examples there would be places like the Harlem Children’s Zone, Success Academy. The Doe Fund is really in that same rank.

For more than three decades, The Doe Fund has served over 30,000 individuals dealing with problems such as reentry and homelessness. And it really stands out in its promotion of work, not just as something that’s economically necessary because people need money, but more importantly because work is part of a full human life. To go into all that, I have two of those creative and talented individuals, Harriet Karr-McDonald, and Jennifer Mitchell. Harriet Karr-McDonald is the president emeritus of The Doe Fund. Along with her late husband, George McDonald, Harriet helped start the organization over 30 years ago and lead it from its earliest years when it was providing paid work to only about 70 men experiencing homelessness to the major multiservice organization that it now is. Jennifer Mitchell is the current president and CEO of The Doe Fund. And she’s now in her second stint at The Doe Fund. She worked there earlier in her career. She took the helm earlier this year, and she has an extensive background in workforce development. So Harriet and Jennifer, thanks so much for joining me.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Thank you.

Jennifer Mitchell: We’re so glad to be here.

Stephen Eide: Great. So Harriet, I want to begin with you and ask you, how did it all start? And I want you to set the scene for us, way back in the 1980s, Grand Central Terminal, and weave together the life stories of a few individuals, both you, your late husband George, and also I think a woman named April, who you were close to, and another woman named Mama Doe, who was the namesake of the organization.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Ready, Willing & Able and The Doe Fund really started, George McDonald, my late husband, started feeding people in Grand Central, and he said he got tired. He was a successful businessman and he got tired of walking out of expensive lunches and having to step over homeless people. He, in his feeding the people began to feed a woman named Mama Doe. She didn’t have any other name that anyone knew. She was a European immigrant, and he fed her. And then in the cold of winter Grand Central put the people out on the street.

She got pneumonia, and George found her on Christmas morning, dead on a bench in Grand Central.

I was a Hollywood actress and screenwriter, and I was hired to write a screenplay about April Savino, a young girl that was homeless and living in Grand Central. I spent a week with her in the terminal all the time. She was actually smoking crack at that time, and I decided she was extraordinary, very smart. I decided I would adopt her and take her back to Beverly Hills and raise her with my daughter. By then, all of the people I knew in the terminal, because after a week you know a lot, were so invested in her going to live in, of course, Beverly Hills.

But the last day she hid from me when we were supposed to fly back, and we looked everywhere, including over the lower tracks underground where she had built a nest that she lived in. We couldn’t find her. I thought, I’ll go back to Hollywood. I’ll write this screenplay, and that will save not only her, but many other homeless people. Right after I finished the first draft, I got a call that she killed herself on the steps of St. Agnes’s Church. I was devastated. I came to her funeral and this man who I thought was a priest gave this incredibly moving eulogy, how she was the star in the night sky.

Afterwards, he invited me for a drink. I realized he was a homeless advocate, and we really from the first day decided to do this work together. And very shortly thereafter, I left Hollywood to marry a penniless man living in an SRO room and start this work.

Stephen Eide: Let me just interrupt you for just a second, Harriet to get clear one detail.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Yes, of course.

Stephen Eide: This phrase, ready, willing, and able, where did this phrase come from, and what does it mean?

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Okay. To me and George, it meant the people were ready to work with help obviously, they were willing to work hard and they were able to do it, and that’s how we started.

Stephen Eide: And why was it that it centers around this issue of work? Obviously at that time, as you noted, there were drugs in the picture. There was always housing. Why was the value from the very beginning as I understand it, centered around work?

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Well, first of all, George and I were patriots. We believed in the American way from day one. And the American way has always been for people to be upwardly mobile, to work hard to get things, to get a better life, to raise their children. That’s always what America has been based on.

Jennifer Mitchell: I just want to interject for a second here. Hi, Stephen. I’m glad to be here with both of you. One of the things that has always struck me about the origin story is when George was handing out sandwiches, and when George and Harriet were getting to know everybody, what they kept saying is, thank you for the sandwich. But what I would really like is a room and a job to pay for it.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Yes.

Jennifer Mitchell: Nobody from back in the mid ‘80s until today is looking for a handout. People are looking for opportunity. People are looking to build themselves up. So we’ve always said it’s a hand up and not a handout. And people have responded to that.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: And that’s kind of the core of the program. We started with me as the first program director and the only staff member in Bed-Stuy with the 70 men we picked up off the floor of Grand Central. And the first work we did was for the city, the non-Union work to renovate city-owned apartments, and our guys outproduced the contract from the first week.

Stephen Eide: That’s extraordinary.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: It was extraordinary. And it was just me and them. And then, very early on, I knew that we had to drug test people, because I couldn’t put people out on the street who were using drugs or at work. And it’s a core element of the program.

Stephen Eide: Good. Yeah, and I want to flash forward and bring you in a little bit more, Jennifer. Just talk a little about what original values have been maintained, and what does workforce development look like and the way that you guys do it now, the mix of training credentials versus soft skills, that kind of stuff.

Jennifer Mitchell: So I joined The Doe Fund, as you said, this is my second stint. My first stint was in 2000, so it was still very much the early days, and it was, as Harriet said, when they first got that, they outperformed the HPD contract. By the time I got there, they had evolved from doing the HPD contracts to doing very much what the men in blue and the Ready, Willing & Able program are known for today, the supplemental sanitation services. We cover over 115 miles of New York City streets every day doing supplemental sanitation services. And that is the core, that is the beginning of getting people used to the idea of work. And so they get up every morning, they don their bright blue uniforms really, really early, much earlier than most people in New York City get up, and they’re out there, and they become part of the community.

It’s a paid transitional work assignment, and they’re doing that five days a week, full days. And then they’re returning to the facilities, our transitional housing facilities that we run, and they’re eating their dinner, and they’re participating in evening classes to improve their digital literacy, to learn more about conflict resolution, to do career success strategies and resume prep and interview prep. And so The Doe Fund always very early on realized that a core to a strong workforce development program was making sure it was holistic and that it was addressing all the different factors in people’s lives that had led them to this point. We know that homelessness doesn’t come only because you don’t have somewhere to live, but it’s connected with a lot of things that aren’t necessarily working in your life.

And so over the years, we’ve evolved and we’ve added more skilled training to it. We have advanced vocational training opportunities, and so it’s always been this three-legged stool, as we call it, provide the housing, provide the paid transitional employment, and then provide the wraparound support services. And to that three-legged stool over the years, we’ve also added this advanced training aspect so that people can get jobs that are family-sustaining and self-sustaining. And so that’s a really important aspect of the program as well.

Stephen Eide: I want to ask you, how does it work to motivate people? In policy circles, we have this big problem that we talk about of what people sometimes call “men without work.” There seems to be a rising number of men who are able-bodied, they’re not disabled, they’re not seriously mentally ill, they’re in their prime work years, but they’re not even looking for work. They’re just dropping out of the workforce. And it’s really, there’s some debate about why it’s happening. There’s a bigger debate about what to do about it. Part of the problem just seems to come down to motivation. So, what does it look like to work on that particular part of the puzzle?

Harriet Karr-McDonald: I think that what it’s always looked like is it comes down to money. The poorest people are the people most motivated to get money in their pockets, and we pay $15 an hour to clean the streets. Then we indoctrinate them into the concept of if they do this, and they also get the skills training, they’ll be in a position to really do well, raise their families, and have their dignity at the top of the charts.

Jennifer Mitchell: And what I would also add, ever since the start of this, it’s always been done in partnership. People have to feel engaged. People have to feel that they are part of the solution. I keep going back to that saying, we didn’t do a hand out, we did a hand up. It’s not only a hand up, it’s like a partnership. And so at The Doe Fund, we have homeless men that fit the profile that you’re describing, entering our doors every single day in our transitional housing facilities. And some of them come in, and they are right off the bat, ready, willing, and able to get engaged in the program and to do what they need to do to build a better life. But some of them come in more skeptical. Some of them come in really, really not interested. And the way that you kind of bring buy-in is it’s a community.

It’s about building that community, building that trust, making them feel part of it and empowered. And in our facilities, it’s really important to note that this program was built by people that looked like and came from circumstances exactly like the folks that are coming into the program. Over 70 percent of the people that work for The Doe Fund in the programs are graduates of the programs themselves. And so we really believe that you want a diverse staff that has all different skill sets and all different experiences, and we really believe that part of those experiences are people who are credible messengers, people who are role models, people who can say, I have been where you have been. I have walked through those doors.

One of the most amazing recent stories is our program director at our original facility, Gates Avenue. He entered the doors of our Gates Avenue facility 14, 15 years ago, coming from a recent incarceration history and homeless. And just two months ago when our Gates Avenue program director, who had also been a graduate, retired, this guy came and is now leading the program where he graduated from all those years ago. And so there are so many stories like that, thousands of them. And so it’s making people part of the solution, getting them engaged in what works, active listening, saying, what do you need? What will motivate you? And then as Harriet said, it does also involve how much can you earn? And that is a big reason why we have added and are working to add even more of these skilled- and sectoral-based trainings so that people can get out and make wages that they can support themselves and their families and their communities with.

Stephen Eide: Good. My last question has to do with that family point, which is something that Harriet touched on earlier. What does it mean to promote fatherhood in a practical sense?

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Okay. What Robert Doar and I agreed on, and I got to tell you, he is extraordinary and cares so much about fatherhood because after all, how do you break intergenerational poverty? By having a father who’s not in prison, who’s not homeless, who pays child support and we’ve had quite a lot of cases of guys that took their children out of foster care because the mothers were drug addicts or whatever, and couldn’t really have custody. So what we found from the beginning was that men wanted to be fathers. After all, in their lives, they didn’t really have a legacy to leave behind because their lives had been so not successful until they come to us. They saw immediately their children as their legacy. Interestingly enough, they have always really participated in their children’s education, making sure they went to school, which these men didn’t really at all. And the best time of the year for me is when kids graduate from college, because I get all of these photographs of these men that I’ve known so well with them, with their children graduating college.

Stephen Eide: Yes. We’re going to have to wrap up in a minute, but Jennifer, I want to give you the opportunity to weigh in as well.

Jennifer Mitchell: Yeah, thank you so much. Yeah, I think everything Harriet saying is true. It’s almost like people want the opportunity, if you provide them with the opportunity, and then to get really kind of granular about it, just like we were talking about as they go through orientation and when they come home from their paid transitional work assignment in the evenings, they’re partaking in classes. And some of those classes are parenting initiatives and fatherhood initiatives. We’ve had days over the years where people can bring their children back as alumni. And we’ve had programs that we’ve done in partnership with child support agencies to make sure that people are treated with respect as they try to navigate complicated systems, but also want to contribute. And so there’s the role modeling and the idea of opportunity. And then there’s the really tangible classes and payment plans and tools and money in their pockets to be able to support their children and take them out to the movies, or buy them an ice cream, or get more involved.

Stephen Eide: It’s such a rich topic. We coud go on for such a long time. I’m going to have to bring it to a close. But look, Harriet and Jennifer, first of all, thank you so much for being on, but more importantly, thank you for all that you have done and continue to do in your work at The Doe Fund. If any of our listeners, if you want more information on The Doe Fund, please go to www.doe.org. If you want more information about City Journal, you can go on Twitter @cityjournal, Instagram @cityjournal_mi. And as always, if you like what you heard on this podcast, please give us a five-star rating on iTunes. And thanks so much for listening to 10 Blocks.

Harriet Karr-McDonald: Thank you so much.

Jennifer Mitchell: Thanks for having us.

Photo: The Doe Fund/Public Domain

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