During the past three years, homelessness in Dade County has become a high-profile issue, with some of South Florida's most powerful business and political leaders addressing the problem that once was left solely to hard-pressed social service and advocacy groups. The turmoil has not bypassed one of the county's oldest and most visible advocacy organizations: The Miami Coalition for the Homeless late last month began a dramatic reorganization, breaking with the person who has most actively defined the group's public role in recent years. Donna MacDonald -- who was hired in late 1991 as associate director, was appointed executive director in August 1992, and survived a move to oust her a little more than a year ago -- was laid off August 22, after the resignation of a key staffer and a series of emergency board meetings.
There are no immediate plans to hire a replacement, says board president Yvonne Grassie. Since March the coalition has been hit by $275,000 in funding losses -- more than half of its projected 1995-1996 fiscal year budget -- the reason for MacDonald's layoff, according to Grassie. As of this past Friday, two of three remaining staffers were expected to continue working on a contract basis (the third had been working on a project that has been defunded).
MacDonald, however, insists there was enough money to keep her on had the board wanted to: The coalition recently had secured funding commitments from two banks and will benefit from two major fundraising events in November and February. After moving to smaller quarters, it will continue to operate its homeless-prevention housing hotline (576-HOME) and to perform a variety of assessment, planning, and research duties for the State Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services.
Though personal criticisms of MacDonald have escalated recently, most board members choose their words judiciously when discussing the departure of the $52,500-per-year executive director or the conflicts involving her that have been more or less responsible for the resignations of several staff and board members during the past eighteen months. Nor are directors willing to blame the 38-year-old MacDonald alone for the coalition's financial difficulties, although some say she should have been better prepared for the loss of one $200,000 grant. "We've been around twelve years now, and this is part of the coalition's evolution," asserts Grassie. "We are trimming down, slimming down, as are a lot of nonprofit organizations in the United States. The general feeling of the board is very excited and upbeat about this reorganization and refocusing of coalition goals, which is something we've needed to do for the last couple of years."
The August 16 resignation of Daniel Blando (the three-year staffer, who served as the organization's director of administration and was considered MacDonald's closest professional associate, cited "seemingly unending stress" as his reason for leaving) helped spur the board meetings that led to MacDonald's dismissal. He says the coalition has been experiencing something of an identity crisis. "There is a danger with any organization to become ivory-towerish and to kind of lose touch with the people you're trying to serve," notes the 39-year-old Miami native.
MacDonald contends that she is being uprooted as punishment for her iconoclastic political stances, and that the coalition's board of directors frequently undermined her by not being involved or cooperative enough with the work of the staff. Ironically, Grassie and the majority of the fourteen-member board were among MacDonald's strongest supporters last year during the attempt by several other directors (who since have resigned) to have her fired. All along, her blunt, confrontational style made MacDonald the object of intense animosity and equally heartfelt loyalty. "This was a painful decision for the board," says member Andrea Panjwani, an attorney for Legal Services of Greater Miami, "because everyone recognizes Donna's intelligence and innovation, and the contributions she's made to the dialogue around the issue of homelessness. No one ever will take that away from her."
MacDonald remains president of the board of directors of the Florida Coalition for the Homeless (an entirely separate organization), and for the past two years has been invited by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in Washington, D.C., to participate in a panel that reviews homeless program proposals for funding. "I'm tired of being the bad guy," she says. "I brought $40 million [in federal funding for homeless projects] into this town, I've worked with homeless people directly in the [coalition's] Homeless Forum, I've tried to do what was expected of me from the board. I've got a very political situation working against me."
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At times the coalition's has been the only local voice challenging the Dade County Homeless Trust, a quasi-governmental body established in 1993 by Metro commissioners to oversee implementation of an official countywide homeless plan. The commission also levied a one-cent food and beverage tax to help raise the approximately nine million dollars per year to pay for the services and housing the plan calls for. Besides tax revenues, the trust has attracted millions of dollars in private and governmental funding, including a prestigious $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Yet some aspects of the Dade plan -- mainly its emphasis on the construction of three multimillion-dollar, 350- to 500-bed emergency shelters -- have been criticized by experts as potentially unworkable. The Miami coalition has always opposed the shelters, and MacDonald has been quick to speak out against them and what she sees as a politically and financially motivated power elite now controlling homeless policy in Dade. On at least two occasions she has angered local leaders by writing scathing letters to federal authorities questioning the propriety of actions or policies adopted by the trust.
But increasingly, in the opinion of many who work in the homeless arena, the coalition that for years was Dade's principal advocate for homeless people has become marginalized, largely owing to MacDonald's refusal to compromise on her deep-rooted convictions, such as those regarding the harmful effect of large shelters. "Hopefully we're going to use a different approach now," says Loren Daniel, a coalition board member and the director of Daily Bread Food Bank. "There are still certain things the coalition does not agree with, and we stand by those principles, but we're trying to be just a little bit conciliatory. We're going to be strong in how we relate to the community, but we want to open up communications."
MacDonald, a native of Toronto, says she hasn't yet decided what work she'll pursue.