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

After the plan was hammered out last summer by a task force that included representatives from local business, academic, political, and social-service organizations, the Metro Commission formed the 27-member Dade County Homeless Trust, co-chaired by County Commissioner Alex Penelas and Miami attorney Jack Peeples, to replace the task force, take over the job of implementation, and coordinate all homeless programs in Dade.

At the outset, MacDonald found fault with the composition of the task force. No matter how well-intentioned its members might be, she and other advocates argued, a group that didn't contain people who were experienced in working directly with the homeless, one that didn't include any representatives from the homeless population, was a sham. Subsequently, a formerly homeless man was named to the task force, as were three people who were already providing homeless services in Dade; today four formerly homeless people sit on the Dade Homeless Trust. MacDonald also spoke out when Alex Penelas's former aide Sergio Gonzalez was appointed to head the Dade Homeless Trust, without a nationwide search.

The cornerstone of the Dade plan -- and its most controversial aspect -- is the "homeless assistance center" (HAC) concept, modeled after a large downtown homeless "campus" in Orlando. Three HACs are to be built, each of which will cost two million dollars and contain 350 beds (down from an original blueprint of 500) and a medical clinic. The plan also calls for $4.1 million to be spent this year on the expansion of transitional or short-term housing.

Upon seeing the plan, MacDonald's coalition mailed copies to experts across the nation, several of whom responded by publicly questioning the HAC concept. Large emergency shelters have tended to encourage dependency and breed vice and crime, the experts pointed out; in addition, many homeless people refuse to set foot in them. Some experts argued that it would be better to construct several small intake or drop-in shelters that can quickly channel their guests into appropriate treatment programs or transitional housing.

Supporters of the Dade plan asserted that Miami's HACs will have several features to distinguish them from traditional large shelters. Women and children will be housed separately from single men, and on-site counseling and referral services will be available to address mental-health and substance-abuse problems and to improve education and job skills. Further, larger facilities cost less per person, at least in the short run, than smaller ones. (And, as was borne out by the furor that accompanied the site selection for the county's first HAC, agreeing on just one location can turn into a pitched battle.)

Leaders of most local homeless-assistance organizations, which had been toiling for years without adequate funding, eventually climbed onboard despite misgivings about the plan. "A couple of years ago most of us were generally opposed to the whole notion of large shelters," says Alvin Moore, director of Beckham Hall, a 110-bed shelter for men on NW Tenth Avenue, and a former member of the board of directors of the Miami Coalition for the Homeless. "Then some things happened, like the Homeless Trust got money for it. At some point you have to stop fighting and read the tea leaves. And clearly the Trust is a big train on the track, and it's coming your way, and the issue is what do you do: Do you throw your body across the track, or do you try to influence what's going to happen? Most of us in the provider community thought we could have an influence."

But although plans for the HACs were downsized from 500 to 350 beds each (still far more than the 100-bed capacity most experts consider to be the maximum for a shelter to remain manageable), MacDonald continued to take issue with what she termed the "business thinking" of Alvah Chapman and his allies, a mentality that favored "clearing the streets of the homeless as inexpensively and quickly as possible," as she wrote in the February 1994 newsletter of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless. "They liken the effective deployment of this task to a product assembly line," she continued, "claiming that business principles can be successfully applied to this problem. Others conversely discuss the homeless as their customers, but do not allow the homeless or ex-homeless to sit on their boards of directors or have much of a say in any decision-making process."

MacDonald has called Chapman the "major beneficiary" of the Dade plan, citing his formation of the nonprofit Community Partnership for Homeless, which will control much of the money that comes into the county earmarked for homeless programs. The $90,000 annual salary of the partnership's executive director, Pat Pepper, contends MacDonald, is far higher than that of most established professionals in the field (MacDonald earns $50,000), the result of an economic scale expanded to accommodate Chapman's high-priced cadre of bureaucrats. Neither Pepper nor Sergio Gonzalez, who earns $70,000 per year as executive director of the Dade Homeless Trust, had much prior experience with homeless issues.

Close to six feet tall when she wears high heels (which isn't all that often since a recent ankle sprain), disorderly auburn curls billowing below her shoulders, MacDonald is a forceful speaker with a flair for incitement. Friends and detractors alike appreciate her intellectual dexterity, but they can't ignore her manner: too argumentative, many complain; doesn't know when to let up. MacDonald herself says the style probably stems from a childhood spent in blue-collar neighborhoods, absorbing her father's activist politics. Joseph MacDonald, a merchant marine, was also a staunch exponent of Canada's socialist-leaning National Democratic Party. He managed political campaigns for years, assisted by Donna, the elder of his two children, whose job consisted mainly of silk-screening hundreds of black-and-orange campaign signs. "I grew up hearing about all the social issues," she recalls, and adds that having to deal with her mother's mental illness gave her insight into the problems of that population.

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