SPEECH: George McDonald on Homeless, Incarcerated Youth

At The Doe Fund’s 2014 Gala on October 30th, Founder and President of The Doe Fund, George McDonald, addressed the audience of more than 500 philanthropists, civic leaders, and celebrities on the power of work and the coming crisis of incarcerated and homeless youth.

A tree’s strength comes from its roots. As the tree grows taller, the roots grow stronger.

It’s an usual thing to know exactly where you were and what you were doing thirty years ago to the day. But I do. I was coming to the end of seven hundred consecutive nights, handing out sandwiches to homeless folks living right across the street from Grand Central Station.

hey were people with no roots; untethered and cut off from, and by, society.  On cold nights when they were locked out of even the train station, it’s as though the city hoped they would just disappear, blown off into the winter wind.

These were human beings–all of them struggling to hold onto their dignity, aching for better lives–and the best that they got, the best that WE as a society could offer them, was an occasional handout. A few bucks. A meal. A cot.

It was right about this time, thirty years ago, when the people there who I had gotten to know told me what they really wanted and needed:

A room.  And a job.

A place.  And a purpose.

What they wanted–and as human beings–needed, were roots.  A way to sustain themselves.  A way to support themselves and their families.  Not just a hand out to get by; but a hand up, to grow.

In a few months, we will begin our thirtieth year of work. And I am so proud to share that milestone, that anniversary, with my wife and partner Harriet; with my son John, my daughter Abigail; and with the rest of the tireless, passionate staff and board of The Doe Fund. I am so proud to share this with the extraordinarily generous donors in this room; with the steadfast partners and compassionate civic leaders joining us tonight.

YOU are the reason our roots are so strong. And you are the reason that our organization has grown so tall.

As you’ve heard, The Doe Fund has served more than twenty two thousand people since we began. We have empowered our trainees to earn–for themselves and their families— income that supports and sustains them for a lifetime. And we’ve seen many of them grow into role models and pillars of their communities.

Our programs drive down recidivism by seventy percent.  They have been replicated across the country, and proven by independent studies at the best universities in the nation.  And through the simple act of putting people to work cleaning the streets, we have created a more beautiful and safer city for EVERYONE who lives here.

And our roots in the community are getting deeper every day. In fact, JUST THIS YEAR, we have partnered with 27 city councilmembers to bring the “men in blue” to more neighborhoods throughout New York–and, as a result, created a hundred new jobs for our trainees.

Our roots are strong and our tree is tall. So why are we expanding and growing?

Because today, we face a new challenge and a new crisis: homelessness and the incarceration of youth.

Two and a half years ago, we saw a sudden increase–a doubling–of the number of young men coming in to our programs; desperately in need of help…and opportunity.

Who are they? They are a lost generation: with fathers incarcerated and mothers languishing in addiction. They are stranded, without stable families, without education, and without the basic tools they need to thrive.

The growing epidemic of youth violence is a bellwether of what’s to come. If we do not intervene on these young people’s behalf and provide them with real opportunity, the consequences are clear: another generation will be condemned to the endless cycles of poverty, violence, incarceration, and homelessness.

These young men are suffering. They are streaming out of foster care; warehoused on Rikers Island; and left homeless on our streets.

Many of them are already fathers, themselves.

They are without hope, and most importantly, without roots from which to grow.

This time, with this crisis, what will we offer them?  Another handout? A government check to “get by”? A cell? Will we hope that they, too, just disappear?

Each of us deserves the opportunity to live by our own hands; the opportunity to lay down roots and grow our families and communities. We all deserve–and need–the opportunity to become self-sufficient, strong contributors to our great American society.

And that is why we are really here tonight.  Because until every person in this country has the opportunity to work and pursue a path of prosperity and independence, our work is not complete.

How do we know that a hand up instead of a hand out is the solution? All we have to do is listen. Young men in Harlem, they want to work. The young men in the Bronx, they want to work, too.  Even the young men of Ferguson, Missouri–in the midst of violent clashes with police–took to the national news and cried out to the entire country: WE WANT TO WORK.

This is not a crisis of criminal behavior; nor is it a crisis caused by some defect or flaw in character.  This is a crisis of opportunity!

Together, we will ensure that the most vulnerable and underserved members of our society have the opportunity they need to uplift their lives. That is how our tree grows taller; and how our roots–as an organization, as a city, and as the greatest nation on earth–will grow deeper, stronger, and sustain us all.

Thank you for making our work possible; we could not do it without your support.

Thank you very much.

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About Author: The Doe Fund

Founded in 1985, The Doe Fund provides life-transforming services for the homeless, the formerly incarcerated, disenfranchised youth, and people living with AIDS. The organization's flagship Ready, Willing & Able program has helped tens of thousands of individuals achieve permanent self sufficiency through paid work, transitional housing, and employment training.