We Can Do It Too…

I am always on the lookout for successful supported housing outcomes. New FoundMinds realizes that those that blazed the trail before us needs to be recognized and we will make some noise!

The word is out…we can support one another, we can create communities with and for all people. I’m excited! Get excited with me; encourage inclusive housing, encourage friendship, encourage community and most of all encourage LOVE  for one another.

Supportive Housing > Peter Jay Sharp Residence: > A Room. . .
“A room and a job to pay for it. A room and a job to pay for it.”

Those were the words George McDonald kept hearing from the homeless people he fed in Grand Central Terminal, every night from 1984 to 1986. They appreciated the sandwich, they said, but what they really needed was,

“A room and a job to pay for it.”

At the time, George was living in a 6-foot-by-9-foot room in an SRO (single room occupancy) residence on East 81st Street. He had no telephone or television. He slept on a metal cot and shared a bathroom in the hall with the other residents of his floor: a retired merchant marine, a doorman, several frail elderly people, a guy who had been a quarterback for the New York Giants before Y.A. Tittle in the 1940s.

George had moved into what he calls “the little room” for two reasons. First, it fit the frugality of his lifestyle – one he had changed radically in 1979. Before then, he had been a successful businessman, living the New York City high life – “wine, women and song,” is how he puts it — “fun but empty.” It was not the kind of life he had envisioned for himself as a boy.

“I grew up wanting to be president,” he says. “I had The Congressional Record delivered to my house when I was in grammar school. I used to go to the library and read biographies of great leaders. I was very taken with Lincoln and, later, with the Kennedy’s. Their vision of an activist government there to help people overcome horrible problems was an inspiration to me — and still is.”

In fact, it was Teddy Kennedy who led George to the little room.

“When Bobby Kennedy was killed, I made a vow to myself that the next time a Kennedy ran for office I would do everything I could to get him elected,” he explains. When Teddy announced his candidacy for president in 1979, George walked out of his corporate office over to Kennedy’s campaign headquarters and offered his help. He ended up co-coordinating the volunteer effort in New York State, which Teddy won big. Though he later lost the country, the course of George’s life was changed forever.

“Teddy brought me back to where I wanted to be,” he says. “Politics.”

After Kennedy’s campaign, George launched his own. He declared himself a candidate for Congress from the upper East Side, moved into the SRO, and began defining his platform. It was right there in front of him, stretched out on the sidewalks and stone doorsteps of the City.

“36,000,” he says. “That was the headline in the New York Times. 36,000 homeless people in New York City.”

Homelessness became the focus of George’s thoughts, efforts and campaign. Grand Central Terminal was the laboratory in which he studied the issue and searched for solutions.

“I didn’t come at it as an expert from the outside,” he says. “I learned about the problems from the people themselves. I listened to them decide what was best for them.”

“A room and a job to pay for it.”

George knew a job had to come first — a way of putting money in people’s pockets. At the same time, he knew that first-rung housing was the other key component of a solution — and that it was disappearing from the New York landscape. By the mid-1980s, gentrification had cut the number of SRO rooms from 150,000 to less than 35,000. To make matters worse, no new low-cost housing was being built to replace it.

Through two more elections, George campaigned on the issues of homelessness and affordable housing. He spoke out at meetings, proposed legislation, captured the attention of the media and the public with his passionate advocacy. Though he earned a substantial percentage of primary votes, he was finally forced to acknowledge that he did not have the financial resources to wage a successful political campaign. By then, it no longer mattered.

“As I started to get to know so many homeless people personally, the political faded,” he explains. “I underwent a personal transformation. The problems of the people became more important than getting myself elected.” George took a job as a messenger in a law firm and lived in the little room, now for a second reason: to prove it could be done, that people could work at minimum wage jobs, live in SROs, and make it. After hours, he used the firm’s law library to research not-for-profits.

“I educated myself,” he says. “In 1985, I started The Doe Fund.”

The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program provided the paid-work opportunity — the job – that homeless people had requested. New Yorkers saw their city transformed by its participants, who, in the process, were transforming themselves. They shattered the stereotypes of homelessness, sobered up, went to work everyday, and worked hard to clean the streets on which they had once slept. For every homeless person who donned the bright blue RWA uniform, one less languished in public misery. What was not visible was George’s effort to fulfill the second request of those he had known at Grand Central — a room.

“When we started the Ready, Willing & Able program, I immediately began making plans to build an SRO,” he says. “I wanted to create a model that people from other communities could come to and look at and say, ‘Hey, this wouldn’t be bad.’ I wanted to build and run it in a manner in which there wasn’t any of the crime or drugs associated with the old kind of SROs. It is my belief that any central city depends on having low-income workers to keep it operating and we must provide housing for those workers.”

It took fifteen years of persistent effort, but in the fall of the year 2000, the ribbon was cut on the first newly constructed SRO in New York City in 50 years: the Peter Jay Sharp Residence. http://www.doe.org

© 2009 The Doe Fund, Inc.


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