News / USA

Homeless Clean Up Their Lives While Improving City Neighborhoods

George McDonald's Doe Fund advocates for hard work, self-respect and opportunity

Multimedia

Audio

Founder George McDonald's the Doe Fund has helped more than 4,000 people move out of homelessness and into productive lives.
Founder George McDonald's the Doe Fund has helped more than 4,000 people move out of homelessness and into productive lives.

After establishing a successful career in the garment industry, George McDonald founded the Doe Fund, a New York-based non-profit organization dedicated to housing the homeless, offering them jobs, and setting them on a course to independence and self-respect.

'To whom much is given...'

George McDonald was born in 1944 to an Irish Catholic family in the eastern state of New Jersey. At Catholic school, he learned the importance of service to others. He still quotes the nuns, who taught him, "to whom much is given, much is asked."

When McDonald was 12, he started collecting discarded beer and soda cans on a nearby beach and redeeming them for coins at a local grocery store. For him, this was a life lesson in the rewards of personal initiative and hard work.

"It showed me right away that, in America, no matter who you are, if you want to take personal responsibility and work hard, the sky's the limit."

After a stint in college studying political science and business, McDonald set off for New York to begin a successful career in the clothing trade. "There were great days. There was wine, women and song, and I had a lot of fun," he recalls. Still, McDonald suffered pangs of conscience.

He recalls stepping over homeless people in the doorway of the restaurant one evening just after he and his friends had spent $200 on dinner. "It made me ask myself 'Is this what I want to do with my life? Pile up little pieces of paper? Money?' It didn't make me feel good about myself."

From business to hands-on advocacy

In 1980, McDonald went to work for Sen. Ted Kennedy's unsuccessful presidential campaign, then later ran for the U.S. Congress himself, mostly on a platform to end homelessness. When he lost that election, he became an advocate for the homeless, lobbying city officials and foundations to help. He also went to work feeding the homeless. He spent 700 consecutive nights serving them food.  

The Doe Fund participants and workers pose for the organization's annual Christmas card.
The Doe Fund participants and workers pose for the organization's annual Christmas card.

"During that process, I came to know individual homeless people. I saw there wasn't anything different about them other than their circumstances and lack of opportunity." That is when he started the Doe Fund. "We simply wanted to help people who were on [society's] margins [and] left behind and didn't have any opportunity."

McDonald started the Doe Fund in 1985, an economically depressed time in New York when urban decay was on the rise.

The city owned thousands of vacant and derelict apartments it hoped to renovate and sell off to help the city's budget and promote home ownership. McDonald bid for a contract for homeless men to do that work in exchange for a decent wage. Meanwhile, the Doe Fund would house the men in buildings they had renovated themselves. From the start the project was a "win-win."

Times of crisis

By 1990, more than 70 formerly homeless men had meaningful jobs and a place to live. But a crisis hit in 1993, when city budget cuts caused the city's apartment renovation program to be slashed. It seemed that at least half of the men would lose their jobs and might have to go back to living on the streets. McDonald hit upon an idea: buy the men bright blue uniforms with a "Doe Fund" logo and an American flag patch, give them a broom and a pail, and send them out into the neighborhood to clean the streets.

He recounts with satisfaction that "people from the neighborhood would walk up to them [as they swept the streets] and ask them what they were doing. And when our guys explained it to them, they would come and put money underneath our door at the office." 

George McDonald with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (left) and the Doe Fund trainee Mark Seymour.
George McDonald with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (left) and the Doe Fund trainee Mark Seymour.

The Doe Fund attained the visibility and the popularity it did because, according to McDonald, neighborhood residents appreciated two things: the streets were getting cleaned, and in those days, the streets were pretty dirty, "… and the Doe workers were cleaning themselves up and their lives, at the same time. They were becoming productive, contributing, taxpaying citizens."

McDonald says it was a key moment in the history of his organization. "Our backs were up against the wall, we had no place to turn but to ourselves, and we solved the problem. And that's the Doe Fund philosophy."

By 2010, the group had generated over $650 million in revenues and graduated over 4,000 program participants, each of whom had his own place to live, paid for with wages earned from his own job.

Taking aim at the root causes of homelessness

McDonald believes that helping the homeless may be a simple matter, but the causes of homelessness are complex. The persistence of racism is a key factor, he believes. It is a fact that blacks are incarcerated at a rate far exceeding whites, and when they are released from prison, they often become homeless, and commit desperate crimes that land them back in jail. These days, McDonald is absorbed in the problem of how to help ex-offenders re-enter society in a dignified and productive way.

"I think that's the civil rights issue of our time," he says. "I don't know how much time God is going to give me but I want to use every one of those days to bring attention to the solutions to this problem. I am committed to that."

Due to a weakened economy and other factors, homelessness is on the rise in America, and the Doe Fund has seen a surge in applicants at its facilities in New York and Philadelphia.

When life will improve is anybody's guess, but this much seems certain: George McDonald will do everything in his power to make sure that all citizens get both the respect and the opportunity they deserve.

You May Like

Turkey: No Ransom Paid for Release of Hostages Held by IS Militants

President Erdogan hails release of hostages as diplomatic success but declines to be drawn on whether their release freed Ankara's hand to take more active stance against insurgents More

Audio Sierra Leone Ends Ebola Lockdown

Health ministry says it has reached 75 percent of its target of visiting 1.5 million homes to locate infected, educate population about virus More

US Pivot to Asia Demands Delicate Balancing Act

As tumult in Middle East distracts Obama administration, efforts to shift American focus eastward appear threatened More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Towni
X
Deborah Block
September 21, 2014 2:12 PM
A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Natural Gas Export Plan Divides Maryland Town

A U.S. power company that has been importing natural gas now wants to export it. If approved, its plant in Lusby, Maryland, would likely be the first terminal on the United States East Coast to export liquefied natural gas from American pipelines. While some residents welcome the move because it will create jobs, others oppose it, saying the expansion could be a safety and environmental hazard. VOA’s Deborah Block examines the controversy.
Video

Video Difficult Tactical Battle Ahead Against IS Militants in Syria

The U.S. president has ordered the military to intensify its fight against the Islamic State, including in Syria. But how does the military conduct air strikes in a country that is not a U.S. ally? VOA correspondent Carla Babb reports from the Pentagon.
Video

Video Iran, World Powers Seek Progress in Nuclear Talks

Iran and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council plus Germany, known as the P5 + 1, have started a new round of talks on Iran's nuclear program. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports that as the negotiations take place in New York, a U.S. envoy is questioning Iran's commitment to peaceful nuclear activity.
Video

Video Alibaba Shares Soar in First Day of Trading

China's biggest online retailer hit the market Friday -- with its share price soaring on the New York Stock Exchange. The shares were priced at $68, but trading stalled at the opening, as sellers held onto their shares, waiting for buyers to bid up the price. More on the world's biggest initial public offering from VOA’s Bernard Shusman in New York.
Video

Video Obama Goes to UN With Islamic State, Ebola on Agenda

President Obama goes to the United Nations General Assembly to rally nations to support a coalition against Islamic State militants in Iraq and Syria. He also will look for nations to back his plan to fight the Ebola virus in West Africa. As VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports, Obama’s efforts reflect new moves by the U.S. administration to take a leading role in addressing world crises.
Video

Video Migrants Caught in No-Man's Land Called Calais

The deaths of hundreds of migrants in the Mediterranean this week has only recast the spotlight on the perils of reaching Europe. And for those forunate enough to reach a place like Calais, France, only find that their problems aren't over. Lisa Bryant has the story.
Video

Video Westgate Siege Anniversary Brings Back Painful Memories

One year after it happened, the survivors of the terror attack on Nairobi's Westgate Shopping Mall still cannot shake the images of that tragic incident. For VOA, Mohammed Yusuf tells the story of victims still waiting for the answer to the question 'how could this happen?'
Video

Video Militant Assault in Syria Displaces Thousands of Kurds

A major assault by Islamic State militants on Kurds in Syria has sent a wave of new refugees to the Turkish border, where they were stopped by Turkish border security. Turkey is already hosting about 700,000 Syrian refugees who fled the civil war between the government and the opposition. But the government in Ankara has a history of strained relations with Turkey's Kurdish minority. Zlatica Hoke reports Turkey is asking for international help.
Video

Video Whaling Summit Votes to Uphold Ban on Japan Whale Hunt

The International Whaling Commission, meeting in Slovenia, has voted to uphold a court ruling banning Japan from hunting whales in the Antarctic Ocean. Conservationists hailed the ruling as a victory, but Tokyo says it will submit revised plans for a whale hunt in 2015. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video A Dinosaur Fit for Land and Water

Residents and tourists in Washington D.C. can now examine a life-size replica of an unusual dinosaur that lived almost a hundred million years ago in northern Africa. Scientists say studying the behemoth named Spinosaurus helps them better understand how some prehistoric animals adapted to life on land and in water. The Spinosaurus replica is on display at the National Geographic museum. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Iraqi Kurdistan Church Helps Christian Children Cope find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil

In the past six weeks, tens of thousands of Iraqi Christians have been forced to flee their homes by Islamic State militants and find shelter in churches in the Kurdish capital, Irbil. Despite U.S. airstrikes in the region, the prospect of people returning home is still very low and concerns are starting to grow over the impact this is having on the displaced youth. Sebastian Meyer reports from Irbil on how one church is coping.


Carnage and mayhem are part of daily life in northern Nigeria, the result of a terror campaign by the Islamist group Boko Haram. Fears are growing that Nigeria’s government may not know how to counter it, and may be making things worse. More

AppleAndroid