When George McDonald started an organization to homeless in 1985, he called it the Doe Fund after the last name police bestow on the unidentified dead. But McDonald had a specific Doe in mind—a body he had identified at the city morgue just after Christmas 1985. She was a white-haired woman to whom he had handed out sandwiches in Grand Central Terminal, where she had died of pneumonia on Christmas Day. "There are searing experiences in your life," says McDonald, 54, "and when that curtain parts and a person you knew is lying there dead on a table, that is one of them."
McDonald, a clothing-company executive turned advocate for the homeless, says he realized then that they needed help more sustaining than sandwiches. "What they really wanted," he says, "was a place to stay and a job." So in 1990 he and his wife, Harriet, now 47, introduced a program that has helped hundreds of homeless help themselves: the Doe Fund's Ready, Willing & Able. Recruited from shelters, its 400 trainees in Brooklyn, Harlem, Jersey City and Washington, D.C., work 35-hour weeks sweeping litter from city streets, then return to dormitories where they spend evenings learning job skills. With sobriety a requirement, the residents take twice-weekly drug tests and attend on-site 12-step meetings.
The program aims to replicate real-world finances: workers earn $5.50 to $6.50 an hour, pay $65 a week for room and board and put $30 a week into savings accounts. Most leave after about a year with a nest egg of around $2,000—$1,000 in savings plus a matching grant—and, says McDonald, 62 percent still have jobs and apartments after three years. "From what I was to what I am now, I sometimes can't believe it," says Kurt Loney, 44, a recovering crack addict who completed the program in June and now teaches computer skills at its Harlem site. "It's scary what a person can do when they have the proper motivation."
Ready, Willing & Able stands out for its focus on individual responsibility, says Joseph Cruickshank, executive director of the Clark Foundation, which funds homeless causes. (Doe's $12.5 million budget comes from government grants, donations and revenue from another Doe program in which homeless staffers do clerical work for companies such as Toyota.) "The popular image used to be that the homeless didn't want to work, and then it was that they couldn't work," McDonald says. "We've put the lie to that."
Homelessness has long been the driving issue of McDonald's life. When he attended Catholic school in Spring Lake, N.J., he says, "the nuns told us all the time we had to do for others." In 1979, two years after he started his own women's clothing company, those lessons—and the vagrants he saw on Manhattan sidewalks—touched a nerve. "I had a good life, but it was time to get serious about something," says McDonald, who was divorced from his first wife, Mary Ellen, in the late '60s. He liquidated his firm and became a self-described rabble-rouser, living in a shabby single-room-occupancy New York City hotel and making three unsuccessful runs for Congress on an anti-homelessness platform.
In 1986, as McDonald was parting ways with other activists (New York's Coalition for the Homeless has criticized him for charging residents rent), he attended a funeral for a homeless 19-year-old and met Harriet, a writer researching a screenplay about homeless teens. "I was amazed how passionate he was about people on the street," says Harriet. They wed two months later and now share a Manhattan brown-stone with Abigail, 21, Harriet's daughter from her marriage to screenwriter Abby Mann, and Ashley, 17, George's daughter with former girlfriend Carol Streavy—along with three cocker spaniels, two cats and three floors of Doe Fund offices. (McDonald has two children from his first marriage: John, 32, Doe's chief financial officer, and Andrea, 30, a social worker.) They hope to take Ready, Willing & Able to more cities. "Why not a franchise?" says George. "My name is McDonald."
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