The Network wishes to honor the life and work of supportive housing pioneer and The Doe Fund founder George McDonald. Below are some thoughts from his colleagues at The Doe Fund. This piece was originally published on The Doe Fund website here.
George T. McDonald, Founder of The Doe Fund and its President for 35 years, passed away on January 26th after battling cancer. He was 76 years old.
It can be said that no person has done more to improve the lives of homeless adult men in New York City than George. His fiery Irish Catholic spirit gave him the gall to fight relentlessly for those overlooked. His unwavering patriotism motivated him to make the promise of America accessible to those for whom it was out of reach.
George grew up in Spring Lake, NJ, where as a youth he expressed his desire to become President. In Catholic school, the nuns who raised George imparted knowledge that would form the basis of his moral compass: that “other people’s miseries are your miseries” and “to those that much is given, much is expected.” George cut his own path in the business world, becoming a successful garment industry executive.
Incapable of overlooking the abundance of human bodies huddled on subway grates and in doorways throughout Manhattan during the 1980s, George left his lucrative position to dedicate his life to ending homelessness. He spent 700 consecutive nights handing out clothing and supplies to the thousands of people living in Grand Central Terminal. There, he heard again and again, “What I really need is a room and a job to pay for it.”
With this in mind, George began a bold experiment: moving into a six-by-nine foot SRO and taking a minimum wage mailroom job to test whether paid employment and housing could indeed provide the solution these individuals sought. In 1985, George founded The Doe Fund to give people the tools they need to break the cycles of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and recidivism. The organization is named after a homeless woman only known as “Mama,” who died of pneumonia on Christmas Day that year after transit police evicted her from the Terminal into the freezing cold. Starting with Mama—who was wearing a scarf George gifted her when she died—George began anonymously paying for the funerals of people who died while homeless, until the end of his own life.
At the funeral of another homeless woman, George met the love of his life: Harriet Karr, a woman equally committed to social and economic justice. They married six months later and founded The Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing & Able program, a holistic reentry model providing access to immediate paid employment, career training and workforce development, housing, and robust social services.
To advance their solutions to homelessness and recidivism, George forged ties with political leaders throughout New York City over the years, including Mayors David Dinkins and Michael Bloomberg. At the behest of Governor Mario Cuomo, in 1992 George and Harriet contributed to The Way Home: Report of the New York City Commission on the Homeless. It was through this report that George forged a lifelong friendship with the man he called his “brother”: Governor Andrew Cuomo, then chair of the Commission. In 2013, George ran for Mayor of New York City on a platform of ending homelessness and recidivism through economic opportunity.
“George McDonald’s Doe Fund has come to embody the compassion and humanity that George inspired in all of us,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said at the news of George’s passing. “Whether it was working together on the New York City Commission on the Homeless in the 90s or our partnership in recent years to deliver supportive housing and services to New Yorkers in need, George was always a trusted colleague, adviser, and, most of all, friend. We judge a life well lived by the consequence of action. George made New York State a better state and improved life for literally thousands. He made a real difference. Today the family of New York joins with Harriet and the entire Doe Fund family in mourning this tremendous loss.”
George built The Doe Fund into a $65 million nonprofit that employs more than 500 people, over 40% of whom are formerly homeless and incarcerated graduates of Ready, Willing & Able. A 2010 Harvard study led by Bruce Western concluded that Ready, Willing & Able reduces the chance of recidivism among program graduates by 62%. A 2018 study by the New York State Department of Criminal Justice Services reached the same conclusion.
The Doe Fund has generated over $1 billion in revenue, $101 million in taxes paid by employees, and $250 million in earned income to program participants. These participants are recognizable to New Yorkers as the Men in Blue, who clean and sanitize over 115 miles of city streets daily across all five boroughs. The organization’s “Work Works” model has been successfully replicated in seven communities across the United States.
George was committed to providing a continuum of care to the most vulnerable New Yorkers: seniors, veterans, low-income families, individuals living with HIV/AIDS and other physical and mental disabilities. Toward this goal, he presided over The Doe Fund’s development of groundbreaking affordable and supportive housing. The organization now has over one million square feet of housing—including more than 1,000 permanent units and 874 transitional beds across 15 residences—open, under construction, and in development. The Doe Fund was honored last year as one of Affordable Housing Finance’s Top 50 Affordable Housing Developers.
Under George’s leadership, The Doe Fund received myriad awards, including the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s first-ever Best Practices Award and the Innovator of Special Merit Award from the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. George himself is the recipient of numerous distinctions, including the Tikkun Olam Award for “repairing the world by repairing countless human lives” presented by Central Synagogue, the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research’s William E. Simon Lifetime Achievement Award for Social Entrepreneurship, an honorary doctorate from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, a Liberty Medal from The New York Post, and the St. John’s University Spirit of Service Award. George was also a member of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Board of Commissioners.
In addition to his wife Harriet, George is survived by his children, John, Ashley, Andrea, and Abigail; and his beloved grandchildren, Emma, John Jr., and Tommy. Countless thousands of lives have been improved by George’s vision and the organization he built.
For inquiries, contact Elizabeth Lion at 347-522-0706 or firstname.lastname@example.org.