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Homeless Clean Up Their Lives While Improving City Neighborhoods

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

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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.

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