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

At the time she was a single mother herself. While an undergraduate, she had fallen in love with a newly arrived Greek immigrant, despite "his polyester pants and slightly nerdy ways." Though opposed to marriage ("a form of state control") at the time, she wanted a child. They had a son in 1977; the relationship ended three years later.

After she received her master's degree in 1985, MacDonald was hired as executive director of FoodShare Metro Toronto, an organization that develops projects to combat hunger and malnutrition among low-income groups. "She wasn't patient and she wasn't polite sometimes when she felt we were wasting her time," recalls Rev. Stuart B. Coles, a longtime social activist who was president of FoodShare's board of directors during MacDonald's tenure. "I felt that was a strength, really."

After FoodShare MacDonald worked for a foundation that funded educational programs, managed a federation of instructors who taught English as a second language, helped a group of street people operate their own business, and raised money for a community center and an immigrant settlement house. Her broad experience prepared her professionally for Miami, she says, but not for the politics. "When you challenge 'the establishment' in Canada, you're talking about a nebulous entity made up of thousands of people without any real involvement in what you're doing," she reflects. "But down here those power elite are sitting at the same table, so it seems you're attacking them personally."

In Toronto, MacDonald says, she rarely faced opposition. She won awards and was featured in glowing newspaper articles. She ran with an eclectic crowd of intellectuals, street people, transvestites, and artists. At a party in 1989, she met Tonyo Laing, a property manager. Her political objections to marriage having faded, she and Laing married the following year. By then a letter had arrived from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, informing MacDonald that she had been granted a visa in the lottery program. Typical of her tenacity: She had sent in 300 entries.

MacDonald says she'd been fascinated by the U.S. ever since she visited New York as a young girl. "I saw the greatest things in the world and the most awful things in the world," she remembers. A 1988 trip to Florida included an excursion to South Beach, where she was attracted to the climate -- so different from her own -- and Miami's unwieldy mix of cultures and classes. "I'm really a sociological voyeur," MacDonald confesses. "That's why I'm fascinated by Miami. The immigration patterns here, the social structures, the way blacks are still segregated.

I don't think you can read about it -- you have to feel it." These days MacDonald, her son Aris, and Tonyo Laing share a South Beach home with two housemates. They also rent out three apartments in the same Art Deco-era building.

With her breadth of experience, MacDonald figured, she'd have no trouble getting a job here. But it took a year to get an interview and another six months before she was hired, at the end of 1991, as associate director of the Coalition for the Homeless. When Executive Director Claudia Kitchens resigned just before the hurricane, MacDonald was named acting executive director. The "acting" was removed from her title in March of last year.

Late that same year, as the proceeds from the new meal tax began funneling in and Community Partnership for Homeless scouted locations for its first assistance center, rumors of MacDonald's impending demise started to circulate. Some members of her staff and the coalition's board were growing dissatisfied with what they saw as a critical lack of direction; many blamed her for the fact that a project of the coalition A a federally funded computer network intended to link all homeless-service groups A had been in the works for two years and still wasn't fully on-line. "It's my view the executive director's job is to give direction to the board," says one board member who doesn't want his name published. "Instead she was sitting back being bombarded from different directions and saying, 'No one's telling me what to do.'" One coalition staffer who supports MacDonald dismisses much of the unhappiness as "typical management-worker stuff, like inaccessibility," explaining that employees were given unusual freedom in their jobs, which sometimes was interpreted as a lack of focus.

When some board members, uncomfortable ever since MacDonald had begun speaking out against the county's homeless plan, learned of the dissatisfaction among the staff, the issue escalated -- and so did the mutual suspicion, the speculation, and, eventually, MacDonald's paranoia. "There were accusations of board members meddling [in coalition staff affairs]," says one member of the coalition board. "Others claimed it wasn't manipulation but the staff crying out. I suspect the truth was somewhere in the middle." The same source also reports calls from "the power people" to coalition board members, a claim repeated by other board members and staffers. Before the May 2 meeting at which the board narrowly voted not to fire her, MacDonald grimly told friends she was afraid she'd have to move from Miami if she wanted to keep working in her chosen field.

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