On June 6, our president and founder George McDonald was honored by sister organization The Bridge with their Partners in Caring Inspiration Award. He delivered the following remarks about the early days of New York’s homelessness crisis and The Bridge’s role in saving a life nearly lost on the city’s streets.
Susan and I go a long, long way back. Before we were founders, when people called us advocates. And before we were advocates, when people called us activists. And before that, when we were just called troublemakers.
We met thirty years ago, when I was getting arrested once a month for feeding homeless people in Grand Central Terminal.
In fact, it was because of my “work” there— handing out bologna sandwiches, surplus from the Department of Education— that a group of students from Columbia Law School approached me and asked for my help.
A friend of theirs had disappeared. They thought he might be living on the streets. “You know all the homeless people,” they said. “Can you find him?” His name was Gary.
Gary was a brilliant guy. He studied at Harvard, then with his friends at Columbia. He was fresh out of law school, in line for a job at a white shoe firm, with a bright future and a full life ahead of him.
He had a girlfriend who loved him and a mother who would do anything to help him.
He also had Schizophrenia— a condition barely understood today, let alone back then, in the dark ages of mental health. In 1985, it was just another flavor of that ugly word used in the press: crazy.
After failing the bar exam and with his new job in jeopardy, he disappeared…carried away by a mysterious disease, lost on the most dangerous streets in the world.
His friends had seen flashes of him: once in the plaza at Rockefeller Center. They called the police. But Gary’s wit hadn’t dimmed. He told the cops, “I’m a lawyer and I haven’t done anything wrong. Now leave me alone.” He was right of course. And they had no choice but to let him be.
I knew the only way we could convince Gary— the real Gary, the genius, the son, the boyfriend— was to compel him in a way that would appeal to his “inner litigator.”
So I went to court and got an order under the Health and Mental Hygiene Act. If I could find him, the judge would provide for a legal arrest. The warrant was in my left hand.
Fortunately, The Bridge gave me something for my right. An apartment for Gary: a safe place for him to live and get the help he needed.
Now all we needed to do was find him. I arranged a press conference for Gary’s mother. She grabbed a megaphone and together, we begged the people of New York to help. We had to act quickly: It was a brutally cold December; Gary was in mortal danger each night he spent lost.
On Christmas, a friend of mine everyone called “Mama Doe” passed away. She was a kind and gentle woman who lived in Grand Central. Forced out into the cold on Christmas eve, she returned to the terminal the next day and died.
On December 26th, I called another press conference on the very spot where she passed. I wanted to commemorate her life. To give meaning to her death. To help people understand what “homelessness” meant in New York City.
I turned around and, out of the shadow of Mama’s death, bathed in sunlight streaming from the terminal windows, was Gary.
If I hadn’t had a reporter and photographer from Newsday with me, I wouldn’t have believed it, myself.
In one hand, I had the court order. In the other, an offer of real help and safe shelter from The Bridge.
I made my pitch to Gary. I said, “You can go see a judge today, or you can move into your apartment tonight.”
He looked at me and, with the perfect eloquence of a Columbia grad said, “I think I will avail myself of this opportunity.”
The bed that The Bridge offered didn’t just provide Gary “shelter.” It was his haven. It was his mother’s haven. That single bed in that little apartment provided relief, stability, and security to everyone who loved Gary.
After thirty years of this work, I can tell you that the measure of our progress as a society— the measure of our moral fiber— is how we care for those in greatest need.
That is the true test of who we are: as individuals, as a civil society, as New Yorkers.
And so I’d like to close by simply saying thank you…to everyone at The Bridge…to my friend Susan…for ensuring that we never fail that test again.
Thank you very much.