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

When MacDonald talks about homelessness, she prefers to analyze the problem in terms of class, poverty, and politics. In a way, she says, all the uproar over the size of Dade County's HACs is really a diversion from the real issue: finding the root causes of homelessness and addressing it at those roots. "I blame homelessness more on the U.S. economic system, which concentrates wealth with the most successful capitalists," she says. "They depend on having a class of people they can pay an unlivable minimum wage to, making it virtually impossible to move up in life, which maintains the status quo of the wealthy. As far as I'm concerned, the system itself causes homelessness."

Since coming to Miami four years ago, she admits, such big-picture polemics have been largely irrelevant amid more pressing day-to-day battles for funding and for a voice in shaping homeless policy. Besides, she has learned, down here that sort of thinking rings dangerously socialistic. "I'm not here to argue about the size of shelters," she says. "I don't think we should need any shelters. But I can't work at those levels on policy."

MacDonald does, however, attempt to influence homeless policy on a national level. Her coalition, which has hosted national conferences and workshops, boasts a slightly bigger staff and budget ($571,000 in fiscal year 1993) than the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington. Still, when she helped draft a letter to HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros this past March, a lot of people in Miami felt she was stepping way out of line.

Signed by co-author Wes Daniels, a UM law professor and then-president of the coalition's board of directors, the letter had to do with the Dade Homeless Trust's application for the mammoth HUD grant. It expressed concerns that the coalition, represented by one seat on the Trust, would have virtually no say in deciding how the HUD grant would be disbursed should it go to Dade County. It also questioned the limited involvement of homeless people themselves in deciding how to spend the millions, and asked for clarification of the criteria to be used in awarding the grants (only five are to be given nationwide).

"My concern and that of a lot of people is that the money be used in a way that's going to be effective in dealing with the problems of homeless people," Daniels says now. "One of the purposes of that letter was to try to encourage HUD to look at the plan and be sure the money isn't used exclusively or primarily for the HAC concept, but be used for permanent and transitional housing and the kinds of things the coalition thinks are much more effective."

Daniels mailed the letter without telling the rest of his board. MacDonald says she regularly sends similar missives to federal, state, and local agencies and that she and Daniels routinely collaborated in such a manner. Despite her assertion that there was no attempt to keep anything secret, and despite the fact that she didn't sign the HUD letter, she took the heat for it.

Apparently members of the Dade Homeless Trust and the Community Partnership for Homeless learned of the letter from HUD officials, with whom they had been discussing their grant application. When the existence of the letter became known, many people were infuriated by what they saw as a sabotage attempt. There was angry talk that the letter had attracted the notice of President Clinton and had put the grant in jeopardy. Even some members of MacDonald's own organization were incensed: Two coalition board members wrote a rebuttal letter to Cisneros on behalf of the Providers Forum, a grouping of organizations that provide services to the homeless and that occupy ten Trust seats.

In the end, of course, the federal fallout was minimal. Locally it was far messier.

"Donna has, in my opinion and in the opinion of many providers, acted in a manner which has alienated the providers and other groups, specifically Mr. Chapman's group," says David Raymond, administrative director of Jewish Vocational Service, Inc. One of the two coalition board members who wrote the rebuttal letter to Cisneros, Raymond was also among the leaders of the movement to fire MacDonald in May. After the vote fell short, he resigned.

"The position of the coalition has been to get out there and make a lot of noise about policy and have this almost ethereal, perfect policy," Raymond continues, "this perfect picture of what the world should be according to them and how services should be delivered in the best of all possible worlds -- like Candide. The world doesn't work that way, and people out in the trenches are operating a lot of times to just stay in business and pay their staff. They're in a position where they can't afford to preach this perfect gospel and to offend the people who are funding us."

Ever since she left home at age sixteen, Donna MacDonald has been working. While earning her bachelor's degree in nutrition at Ryerson Polytechnic University in Toronto, she created an information library and database regarding nutrition. Later, while working toward a master's in health science at the University of Toronto, she helped a group of single mothers in a housing project to grow their own food, to prepare healthy meals, and in many cases to begin schooling and careers.

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