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In the early 1980s, George T. McDonald, a garment industry executive, left his position to spend 700 consecutive nights handing out clothing, supplies, and sandwiches to thousands of homeless New Yorkers in Grand Central Terminal. But while his works were appreciated, all too often McDonald would hear, “What I really want is a room and a job to pay for it.” Unwilling to accept the notion that adults willingly motivated to improve their lives unnecessarily experience poverty and homelessness, McDonald took a vow of poverty and in 1985 founded The Doe Fund.
Today, The Doe Fund, a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization headquartered in Manhattan, is dedicated to breaking the devastating cycles of homelessness, incarceration, and recidivism by investing in innovative vocational programming and affordable housing initiatives.
The Doe Fund’s goal is to provide New Yorkers the opportunity to have a room and a job to pay for it, just as McDonald heard time and time again. Along with his wife, Harriet Karr-McDonald, McDonald co-founded Ready, Willing & Able, The Doe Fund’s 12-month reentry program, provides access to both housing and paid work—integrated with holistic social services, career and workforce development training, continuing education, and sobriety support to help New Yorkers in need ascend the economic ladder.
Known as the “Men in Blue” for their bright uniforms, participants work on community improvement cleaning crews by day, and by night participate in intensive computer and educational classes designed to teach skills critical in the modern workplace. Over the course of the program, the Men in Blue choose an occupational training track based on their ambitions, interests, and skills—ultimately transitioning out of the cleaning crews to paid, full-time training opportunities within The Doe Fund’s social enterprises accompanied by a certification or professional license for long-term career sustainability. Once they’ve completed the program, The Doe Fund also provides graduates with supplement grants and move-in kits for their new homes to ease the transition.
The program works. In an independent study by a Harvard University professor, Ready, Willing & Able graduates were found to be 60% less likely to be convicted of a felony three years after graduating, and overall, the program cuts the risk of future police contact by one-third. In addition, 78% of graduates have kept their jobs after six months of exiting the program.
“We’ve learned over the years that putting a roof over someone’s head in a nice location, with modern amenities, gives New Yorkers a leg-up on financial independence and helps them reconnect with family,” says John McDonald, Executive Vice President of Housing Development at The Doe Fund.
“When I started at The Doe Fund, I think my second or third week, I went to Webster Green, one of our newer affordable and supportive housing residences—and I was just stunned,” adds Chris Leuggiero, Associate Director of Communications at The Doe Fund. “Before I started this work, I had preconceived notions about this kind of housing. It really floored me; it was just state of the art from head to toe.”
The Doe Fund helps low-income New Yorkers in other ways. New York City’s notorious housing shortage is one of the biggest barriers to economic independence. The Doe Fund has been combating that shortage by developing affordable, supportive housing for communities in the area since 1996.
Currently operating and developing over one million square feet of permanent and transitional housing, The Doe Fund has nine existing properties and six in development. Close to being finished is their second largest development to date, the new Muller Residence located in the Bronx houses 90 units and is anticipated to open for occupancy in August 2021.
Community support is a priority for The Doe fund, and these projects are bringing significant value and impact to the surrounding communities. “We like to be good neighbors. We always present ourselves to the communities and local politicians before we break ground,” says McDonald.
“We’re putting money into communities. When we do construction, there’s at least a hundred people working on the project at one time or another, and it’s a three-to-four-year process. We’re buying local, and we’re hiring local. The contractor is local, who works with local vendors, and the architects are local. And then once the building is ready, the program staff, security, and maintenance are all hired local.”
Every building The Doe Fund develops includes community spaces for meetings with tenants, events and entertainment, and educational seminars. The newly developed Muller Residence, however, has even more to offer not just for the tenants, but for the community.
A former Army Reserve Center, the Muller Residence was used during the Korean War to build gyroscopes for torpedoes and missiles before being converted into office space for military personnel. Once open for occupancy, veterans and low-income individuals will be selected out of a tenant lottery system – making it a full circle project from 1951 to 2021. It’s Doe Fund projects like this that contribute to affinity and buy-in from the local community.
“One of the special features of the Muller Residence is the auditorium, where we can house 74 people and have offered it to the community board for meetings and we’re going to use it as an educational and entertainment venue,” says McDonald.
“The reward in all this is that we are expanding the groups of people that we help beyond Ready, Willing, & Able, through our portfolio of housing,” adds Leuggiero. “We’re able to help families, women, single mothers; we’re able to help veterans, people with disabilities or HIV/AIDS. It’s just amazing and humbling to be part of this expansion, to be able to grow the sheer number and groups of people that we can help.”
The Muller Residence was made possible in-part by Sterling National Bank, which marked the beginning of what has been a close relationship with The Doe Fund in recent years. The city requested The Doe Fund repurpose the Muller property from a transitional facility into affordable housing, and a tax syndicator introduced them to Sterling. “They made a strong push for us to work with Sterling National Bank and to bring this deal to HPD with Sterling as our construction lender and investor.”
The Doe Fund’s relationship with Sterling has since expanded into other areas of business and banking. The Sterling National Bank Charitable Foundation has also recently approved $50,000 in grant funding to support Ready, Willing, & Able, as well as a dedicated computer lab that will integrate all aspects of the program—including workshops to strengthen basic computer skills and automate their current day to day processes.
“What started as a real estate relationship has become far more,” says McDonald. “Sterling is very hands-on. You’d think it would be somewhat easy to develop a good banking relationship as a 60-million-dollar company, but it’s really not that easy. We found that working with some other banks, they were almost too big to deal with us. They might have a housing department that didn’t talk to the community division, for instance. So, it kept them from being able to benefit us. This has been a welcome change.”
“In order to truly thrive, it is critical that residents of all backgrounds and income levels have access to safe, inclusive, and affordable housing options without sacrificing access to the types of amenities and sustaining services they require”, says K. James Dittbrenner, Senior Managing Director of Community Lending and Investment at Sterling National Bank. “We are truly pleased to work with The Doe Fund on this and other projects, watching them expand their reach through programs, services and housing to the most vulnerable in our city. What George and Harriet McDonald accomplished; working tirelessly with friends, colleagues and community leaders for NYC is truly awe-inspiring.”
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