By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
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 courtone was filed July 3to 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" feewhich could mean as little as $1 a yearon 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 McDonaldthe city's only homeless service provider to publicly trumpet the former mayor's wildly unpopular "work for shelter" planto 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 27while under house arrestWeiss 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 milliona 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 testthe results of which could sink the property valuewas 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."
But McDonald has never operated a shelter program for those who haven't volunteered, advocates say. His RWA "trainees" typically endure a tailored program that can last as long as 18 months; Porter Avenue, primarily, will be used to handle those entering the city's 21-day assessment period. Doe's security team concedes that mixing their drug-free trainees with transients could lead to problems, and the prospect brings back memories of riots during Doe's first days taking over their Harlem facility, when the city's regular shelter folk tried to organize RWA clients to boycott the work program. "It'll be a challenge," says McDonald. "We're more than ready."
Even though Mayor Bloomberg's DHS administration inherited the controversial Porter Avenue project, it remains committed, and touts Doe's track record as nothing but success. One of 70 homeless service providers, the Doe Fund recruits troubled men and women from shelters, offers clean beds, food, and counseling in exchange for a stipend equivalent to minimum wage$5.50 for the first sixth months, $6.50 for the next sixfor sweeping streets in uniform, cooking, or packing mail. Founded in 1985, Doe receives nearly $11 million a year in government grants and private donations. "We see the potential in people," says McDonald. "The system doesn't."
McDonald's moxie has long been appreciated by housing policy wonk Andrew Cuomo, a Democratic candidate for governor. Just before Doe offered its bid to the city to build Porter Avenue, Cuomo, then secretary of Housing and Urban Development, offered Doe over $1 million to start an RWA program in Washington, D.C.
Receipts often were not provided, client medication wasn't always properly secured, and staff credentials and qualifications were not always provided, along with simple supplies like toilet paper, according to an unreleased report signed by Susie King, the District's homeless services contract administrator.
The report also states that start-up funds were paid in advanceanother violation of their agreementand that the money was used for air travel, petty cash, and staff salaries. Above all, the District charged, Doe failed to serve the minimum number of 60 homeless adults stipulated by the contract; on average, the facility served 36. The report's recommendation was to never again do business with Doe. The District requested a full financial audit.
"To think the city awarded $180 million to Doe when they couldn't handle 60 men in D.C. raises some serious red flags," says Needelman. "There definitely was a hidden hand somewhere."
In defense, King's office had philosophical differences with the Doe fund, says Harriet McDonald, the group's VP, and her office's report "couldn't be more inaccurate. We're an asset to the community."
"None of this is true," says McDonald. "It's slander, by not-in-my-backyard."