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

Besides David Raymond, two other board members left the coalition after the vote. One was Alvin Moore, the Beckham Hall director who had been on the board for ten years. Both Raymond and Moore said they resigned because of MacDonald. (The third board member, Walt Anders, said his departure wasn't related to difficulties with MacDonald.) Three staffers also quit almost immediately, including MacDonald's associate director, Ted Greer, Jr., who said at the time that he felt he no longer had MacDonald's confidence and also cited an "unclear mission and direction" of the coalition. Today he declines to elaborate. Nearly three months later a fourth board member resigned, after a confrontation with MacDonald during the July board meeting. (Tempers flared when the member questioned the propriety of MacDonald's criticism of a project undertaken by a large local provider of services to the homeless.)

Amid the turmoil, the larger issue -- of how the coalition can most effectively work in the interest of the homeless -- goes unresolved. Right now the group is preparing to accept bids for the development of housing for about 100 families on U.S. Naval Reserve Center, a former naval training facility site in Coconut Grove.

"I don't know of any other organization in a better position to advocate independently for the rights and interests of the homeless themselves," says the coalition's new board president, attorney Steven K. Baird. "I believe the coalition represents and collects some of the foremost true expertise in the area. But I sometimes have concerns about how much that expertise is taken advantage of," adds Baird, who says he has placed conciliation at the top of his agenda. "I don't know where we go next," he concludes. "The issues are extremely complicated. But we waste too much time on personalities and individual careers."

Others, even less optimistic, are not at all reluctant to single out MacDonald. "These things happen with Donna as a pattern," observes one board member, in reference to the recent blowup. "I personally don't believe executive directors of organizations with half-million-dollar budgets act that way. She's trapped in her mind in this victim role, but it didn't just happen to her; she did a lot to create it."

Responds MacDonald: "Some of my board members say if people perceive me that way, I'm doing my job. When you're the only person bringing up certain issues and everybody else decides to go with the flow, you're going to get into a vicious cycle where people are perceiving you very negatively."

But although MacDonald downplays the incident and points to her triumphs -- "The HAC is down to 350 beds; I'm pretty positive it wouldn't have happened if we hadn't taken a stand" -- her presence at the forefront of Dade's homeless activism movement seems to have diminished. During the hearing at which the Miami Commission okayed the site of Dade's first HAC, MacDonald sat in the audience but was not among the activists and local residents who addressed the crowd from the podium. Her silence, MacDonald says, was an acknowledgement that her earlier tactics hadn't worked.

Ethel Elan, director of homeless programs for the Northwest Dade Mental Health Center and a member of the Dade Homeless Trust, is one seasoned homeless professional who has opted to work closely with Community Partnership for Homeless, despite the fact that she believes large shelters are unsuitable for the mentally ill population she serves. Elan has remained a neutral bystander in the controversies surrounding MacDonald, though she concedes that MacDonald's "timing and method can be problematic."

Still, Elan is unwilling to dismiss the message simply because she finds fault with the messenger: "Donna is incredible at seeing through and really being able to identify long-term issues," Elan says. "She was one of the first people to really pound the table and say we need more homeless people represented on the Trust. This year we got up to four positions. Was it only because of Donna? Certainly not, but who was the person who really agitated, really stood there, really said this must be done? In a lot of situations you will find Donna saying that. She might get shut out, and I don't think anyone's patting her on the head, saying 'Great, Donna.' But if you look behind the scenes, you'll see she was there.

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