Ready, Willing & Under Fire

Community Fights Doe Fund Shelter

George McDonald is on fire. He's boasting, pontificating, scurrying around his Ready, Willing & Able (RWA) homeless facility in Harlem, taking a reporter on a whirlwind tour. His 58-year-old legs are trembling in overdrive. Spittle is coming from his mouth. The Doe Fund president can't help it: Guiding displaced men to salvation through hard work elates him.

"You look terrific!" he says to one of his new RWA "trainees," a man missing two front teeth, then slaps him on the back. To the lone man working the laundry machines in the basement, "Cleanliness is next to godliness!" he proclaims with an extended finger, echoing the holy cant of 18th-century Puritan moralists. To the scribbling reporter, he jests, "Don't write now. You can write after I'm gone."

But lately, McDonald's really been animated over his nonprofit's most ambitious project to date: the RWA Center for Opportunity, an expansive, 400-bed shelter to be fashioned from an old knitting factory at 89-111 Porter Avenue in East Williamsburg. Construction on the city-funded project has just begun. "From here on in," McDonald says, "it's full speed ahead."

Not so fast, say community advocates and local politicians, who are filing two last-chance appeals in Brooklyn supreme court—one was filed July 3—to prevent the fund from opening doors on their turf.

"The city's plan is an abomination," says Martin Needelman, a Brooklyn Legal Services attorney who filed the latest appeal on behalf of Community Board 1 and local businesses. By using Doe to purchase the property, his appeal claims, the city was able to avoid standard environmental reviews and quickly close the deal without public scrutiny. "It's bad precedent," he says. "The city and Doe did it the quick way, but they got to play like everyone else: fair."

The cries of protest against Porter Avenue started three years ago, when Department of Homeless Service (DHS) announced "a compelling need" to close down the spooky 30th St. Shelter, a dangerous 850-bed men's facility near Bellevue Hospital Center where one-third of the residents are ex-cons, many with violent criminal histories. That compelling need, it turned out, was a DHS plan to lease the dilapidated building for nearly 100 years to New York University for a "nominal" fee—which could mean as little as $1 a year—on the condition that they build a planned $300 million biotech research center next door. Under the City Charter, however, the deal can't be completed until the city finds replacement beds for all the men now staying at Bellevue.

Looking to privatize, Rudy Giuliani tapped McDonald—the city's only homeless service provider to publicly trumpet the former mayor's wildly unpopular "work for shelter" plan—to purchase the property on Porter Avenue; in turn, Doe was blessed with a whopping $180 million city contract to run the shelter for 22 years.

Other homeless advocates were shocked. "It's enormously misguided fiscal policy," says Patrick Markee, senior policy analyst at Coalition for the Homeless. "Why give the Doe $180 million for a temporary shelter, in a budget crisis, when you can spend the money on affordable housing? It doesn't make sense."

More perplexing, perhaps, is the city's choice of a site owned by the very prescient Abraham Weiss, a real estate speculator living in Satmar Williamsburg, and a felon convicted for conspiring to rig city auctions.

In March 1999, Weiss invested a meager $12,000 to buy the building, only three months before the city began accepting bids from shelter providers. In late July, the city comptroller's office attempted to foreclose; the building then carried over $1.5 million in unpaid taxes. On July 27—while under house arrest—Weiss blocked the move by declaring bankruptcy.

Only three days later, Doe applied to purchase Weiss's building. The price, covered in full by the city, was $2.6 million—a windfall for the "bankrupt" felon.

According to an internal memo sent to Giuliani's office from then comptroller Alan Hevesi, the building's appraisal procedures were "extremely deficient." The inspector, for starters, never entered the abandoned building. An asbestos test—the results of which could sink the property value—was never conducted; in fact, all environmental concerns were missing from the report. Doe didn't even own the site at the time of bidding. Had DHS gone through the city's normal bid process, according to the memo, McDonald's group would have been disqualified. "It is a perfectly normal, perfectly valid transaction," Giuliani said.

89-111 Porter Avenue sits in the middle of an industrial park, across the street from a waste transfer station. The major traffic comes from commercial trucks at night and prostitutes who poach the yards looking to turn tricks on dark, empty streets. It's no place for homeless men, advocates say, looking to make the transition back into society.

"There's no infrastructure to absorb these men," says Karl Camillucci, chief of staff to city councilmember Diane Reyna. "No supermarkets, jobs, shops, and public transportation [make it] inadequate for those looking for work in different neighborhoods." Needelman says, "It's a warehouse, for people."

McDonald shrugs off all charges. "All this fishing around is just self-interested, not-in-my-backyard complaints," he says. "We won in court already. We've proven to be good neighbors. We're moving in."

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