A fight is brewing between the City and the Doe Fund, a non-profit dedicated to helping provide the homeless with shelter, temporary jobs, and vocational training. The Department of Homeless services has moved to place a number of sex offenders at the organization’s Bushwick facility, but the Doe Fund claims it lacks the resources for what it says is a fundamentally different type of homeless person. After filing a lawsuit against the city, the non-profit is now appealing to the community by way of a petition and a “town hall meeting” held yesterday at its Porter Avenue shelter. But City officials, including local Council Member Antionio Reynoso and Mayor Bill de Blasio’s office, are pushing back.
As of July 22 (the homeless population is counted daily in the city), there were 56,073 individuals being housed in homeless facilities. The city’s homeless population has reached record highs since the Great Depression and has increased rapidly in the past several years– by about 79 percent in the last decade, according to the Coalition for the Homeless.
The Department of Homeless Services (DHS) ran into trouble earlier this year when the city agency racked up hundreds of violations. The de Blasio administration has taken action to address the squalid conditions by establishing a new shelter repair squad, but the City is still struggling to provide shelter and services for a massive homeless population.
Alexander Horwitz, the Doe Fund’s Director of External Affairs, told us the city is trying to push 50 “level 2 and level 3 sex offenders” (qualified as being at moderate and high risk, respectively, for repeat offenses) on the organization’s Porter Avenue shelter out of panic. “It hasn’t invested in services or facilities for sex offenders, so now the city is trying to disperse them. We want the city to know that this plan, which is really just a panicked reaction to a problem the city created, can’t move forward in communities like this and it can’t move forward with our program. And so we’re fighting it.”
Horwitz vowed, “We will never put a sex offender in one of our blue uniforms” — uniforms which, Doe Fund founder George McDonald noted at last night’s meeting, have the American flag on it.
But the city has already tried to foist sex offenders on the organization, Horwitz said. “Two or three times now they’ve dropped a sex offender off literally at our front door and when we asses their rap sheet, we look at their history, and in those cases what we’ve done is we’ve provided private transportation in one of our vans back to DHS for those individuals.”
Horwitz characterized the men that DHS sent to the Porter Shelter as having been convicted of “very, very serious offenses,” and that last night’s meeting was convened to demonstrate to community members “how dangerous this plan really is.”
There are close to 50 registered sex offenders, including repeat offenders and those convicted of the rape of a child, already living in the 11237 zip code, according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services.
DHS directly operates a number of shelters, but many other religious and secular non-profit organizations, including the Doe Fund, operate transitional housing as well. These organizations, as charities, are not only tax-exempt, but they also receive government funding.
DHS and the Doe Fund, whose Bushwick facility has 400 beds, have worked together for 25 years. Since 2008, the Doe Fund (which was founded in 1983 by George McDonald, a former garment industry executive) has received $42.34 million in public support, according to 2013 tax filings.
In 2012 public support accounted for 96.32 percent of the Doe Fund’s income, but the organization says it is willing to give up that funding to prevent sex offenders from moving into the facility. “We will end our operating contract with DHS if we have to. We will move the program if we have to,” Horwitz said.
George McDonald and his wife Harriet McDonald, both architects of the Ready, Willing, & Able program, reiterated this at the meeting.”We will close this building before we take them,” Mrs. McDonald said.
“They’re trying to do something my wife and I promised we’d never do,” Mr. McDonald said. “This is so outrageous and so insulting to us.”
“DHS partially funds the program and, in exchange for that partial funding, they send us folks from the system,” Horwitz told us in a separate interview. “For the last 25 years we’ve had an agreement with DHS that the people they send us should be relatively able to work in the community, and that means folks with profound mental illness can’t really be served in our facilities, and certainly sex offenders, who are barred from interacting with the community and working near schools and playground, we can’t service them either.”
He added: “The population we serve are guys who have gone to prison or are homeless because of a lack of economic opportunity.”
According to the City, the Porter Shelter (aka the Peter Jay Sharp Center for Opportunity) is one of three shelters operated by the Doe Fund in New York City, and has occupancy in its facilities to house more people in need. Additionally the Bushwick shelter is located at least 1,000 feet away from a school (while this restriction has not yet been passed into law by the Senate, DHS Commissioner Taylor has enacted this policy in light of problems at a Kips Bay shelter and recent incidents of violence).
But Horwitz contended that 1,000 feet is not far enough. “Our facility is 1,700 feet from Maria Hernandez Park with a huge playground and the Williamsburg Charter School,” he claimed. (Google Maps indicates it’s actually a 2,640-foot walk from the Porter Avenue shelter and the nearest school, which is not the Williamsburg Charter School, is more than half a mile away.)
And while the Doe Fund has cited the fact that their program puts enrollees out on the streets and in the community, DHS does not require that the people being moved to the shelter be enrolled in each of the organization’s programs, which include the vocational training and temporary job placement known as Ready, Willing, & Able.
We contacted the Mayor’s office regarding the Doe Fund’s fight to keep sex offenders out of their facilities and were provided with this statement:
The City is legally and morally obligated to provide shelter to anyone who requests it. The city ensures those listed on the sex offender registry are sheltered at sites that meet New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) guidelines. We are working with all providers to transfer those residents to sites that are compliant, as well as ensuring providers have the necessary resources to serve high-risk populations – including more funding and personnel for security, mental health and social services.
City Council Member Antonio Reynoso’s office provided us with a similar stance:
I am a supporter of the Doe Fund – I believe their programs can be transformational for participants, and they contribute to keeping communities all across the city clean. However, I am also committed to the principle of fair share. There are many types of facilities that no one in any community wants in their backyard, yet all communities need to do their part. Homelessness is a major issue for this city, with almost 60,000 people sleeping in our shelters every night. We must constantly work to address this issue proactively, and we must follow the regulations regarding siting of facilities for sex offenders. I encourage members of my community to approach this issue remembering that we need to do our part to end the homelessness crisis.
Since early summer, the Doe Fund has taken their story to a number of local media outlets, but yesterday evening when they convened a “town hall meeting” at their Bushwick location, they were appealing to their neighbors.
When we arrived at the Porter Avenue shelter yesterday for the “town hall meeting,” we were greeted by a metal detector, security guards, and an X-Ray system not unlike that found at airports. The Doe Fund says it has provided shelter and services for formerly incarcerated individuals who have committed violent crimes and admits that there have even been incidents of violence within the Doe Fund’s population. “But we’ve never served sex offenders,” Horwitz told us.
Democratic Assembly Member Maritza Davila was in attendance, as was a representative from Senator Martin Dilan’s office. A variety of eager looking parents strung signs around their toddlers and babies in strollers with messages like, “I’m growing up two blocks from here,” and “I walk by here alone at night,” while a diverse set of other Bushwick residents and local business and manufacturing representatives also filed in.
At the meeting, Horwitz emphasized the differences between shelters that provide “three hots and a cot” and the Doe Fund’s “Center for Opportunity,” which provides job training and career placement in addition to its shelter services. The organization says that 62 percent of its enrollees graduate from the program by finding non-subsidized housing and full-time employment.
While Horwitz ran most of the show, the eccentric founder of the Doe Fund, George McDonald, a guy with a penchant for calling Democratic politicians “knuckleheads,” stood up and shouted at the top of his lungs occasionally, issuing applause and bellowing mockingly about Mayor de Blasio’s progressive politics.
“Our program and the work that we do and the opportunity that we have provided for 22,000 men has been valued by Ed Koch […] and then David Dinkins […] and then low and behold, Rudy Giuliani loved it,” said Mr. McDonald before his voice elevated to a scream. “And then Michael Bloomberg gave us $50 million from his own pocket. And now this guy doesn’t value work. That’s a very frightening thing to me, ladies and gentlemen.”
While Mr. McDonald iterated his concern for the safety of the community, he also cited expenditure concerns. “I’ve had to hire lawyers, I’ve had to hire PR guys, and all of these things cost money and not an inconsequential amount of money, and money that we look at as depriving an individual who’s coming home from prison an opportunity to turn his life around, because that’s what we raise money to do.”
Horwitz also explained during a phone call that if members of the shelter population cannot work within the community providing jobs such as cleaning services, as sex offenders presumably could not, “It’s a huge financial drain on our program as well.” (Though according to the Doe Fund’s 2013 IRS filings, the non-profit has approximately $50 million in assets and just $550,000 of their annual income for the year was attributed to revenue that did not qualify as public contribution or private donation).
But the Doe Fund is not just hoping to get the Bushwick community on their side, they’re attempting to obtain a restraining order as well as suing the city, alleging that the introduction of sex offenders to their facilities is illegal and in violation of their 17-year $157 million contract with the city.
Outside of the Porter Shelter, a biker who lives in the neighborhood noticed an unusual number of people convening outside. “What’s going on?” he asked me. I explained the town hall-style meeting and the issue of the sex offenders. “I thought they already had sex offenders there,” he shrugged.