Bold MacDonald

The fight to end homelessness has moved to the boardrooms -- and Donna MacDonald, brash and outspoken, is having trouble finding a way in

Donna MacDonald's first day as executive director of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless was a harbinger of events to come. She assumed the post on Monday, August 24, 1992 -- the day Hurricane Andrew propelled homelessness to new proportions in Dade County -- and promptly faced her first crisis the next day. Though Andrew had left the coalition's headquarters more or less intact, humans had not: The office had been burglarized and everything was gone. No fax or copy machines, no phones, no computers. They'd even made off with software for a computer network the coalition had been working on for the past nine months.

Back then the organization, founded ten years ago to advocate for the homeless and to help improve communication among groups working with that population, shared offices with another nonprofit in an old two-story house on NE Seventeenth Street, just west of Biscayne Boulevard. Having surveyed their barren work quarters, MacDonald, her two staffers, and a few volunteers made their way through the toppled palms down Biscayne to the county-run homeless-assistance trailer under I-395. The trailer workers had a few phones and computers to share, and moral support, so the coalition moved in for the time being, setting up a housing hotline for low-income people who'd lost their homes in the storm. Volunteers collected donated pizzas to feed the refugees.

Two years later the hotline is still in operation as a referral service for those who seek or offer shelter. The coalition staff has quadrupled and has moved to new headquarters on the sixth floor of a high-rise farther north on Biscayne Boulevard, where MacDonald's glass-walled corner office seems to float out toward the bay. But in those same two years, far more sweeping changes have transformed the world of homeless activism in Dade. The forum for debate about how to deal with the county's homeless population (estimated to number between 6000 and 10,000) has shifted into the political mainstream, from the modest offices of struggling social-service organizations, many of which had been laboring unnoticed and underfunded for years, to the opulent conference rooms of the civic elite. All along, the 37-year-old MacDonald has been the most vocal critic of the new order. Recently, however, many have questioned whether there is a place for the outspoken Toronto native among the leaders of Dade's high-profile campaign against homelessness. On the agenda at the May board meeting of MacDonald's own coalition, in fact, was a motion "to replace the executive director." The motion failed, 11-9, with one abstention. Since that vote, four board members resigned.

"It's a unique role she's put in, and I'm surprised she's lasted as long as she has," offers Michael Stoops, director of field organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C. "Miami is unique in the extent to which the business community is involved [in homeless policy]. I think I or anybody else would have been eaten alive as an advocate in Miami. There are some good people there, but it seems like for whatever reason, only Donna is speaking out."

Locally, many believe "speaking out" only superficially accounts for MacDonald's difficulties. Her critiques and analyses often rile their targets, detractors say; worse, her personality -- at times abrasive, volatile, and overreactive -- alienates well-meaning peers. "There are [Miami Coalition for the Homeless] board members who believe the problem is that Donna's not afraid to stand up and say what she believes," says one board member who does not want his name published. "Ideological differences do exist. But that's not the reason all the powerful people in this arena don't even want to be in the same room with her. The reason they can't stand her is she doesn't know how to behave."

Asserts Pat Pepper, executive director of Community Partnership for Homeless: "She isn't part of what's going on. The only part she has played was a negative one." Pepper, who heads the nonprofit organization responsible for the construction and operation of Dade's much-ballyhooed (and criticized) Homeless Assistance Centers, says she has no further comment about MacDonald. Alvah Chapman, the influential former Knight-Ridder chairman and the man who hired Pepper to direct CPH, says he has never had much contact with MacDonald and likewise has no comment.

Some contend that such public reticence is disingenuous. "Donna is someone they've decided must be silenced," says one source who wants to remain anonymous because his dealings with the homeless-related professional community demand that he maintain neutrality. "There's no doubt in my mind that Pat Pepper is on a campaign to destroy Donna, and if she can't destroy Donna by herself, it will be the whole coalition," he continues. "In some quarters Donna's reputation has been sullied by really aggressive misrepresentation of her, and people will believe it. She's very smart and she knows what she's talking about. That's a dangerous combination if you don't agree with her."

This past July, thanks largely to the efforts of Alvah Chapman, the Metro Commission unanimously voted to impose a one-cent restaurant tax to help implement a countywide homeless assistance plan, making Dade one of the few governments in the nation to dedicate a tax for homeless programs. The tax, expected to generate more than six million dollars per year, won't be enough to fund the entire plan; it will have to be supplemented by private contributions and federal funds, among which will be a $15 million grant recently promised by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

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