Bold MacDonald

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >