Champion of the Dispossessed

Author: Ed Cohen

Mary Brosnahan ‘83 fishes a newspaper clipping out from under the many papers on her desk at the headquarters of New York City’s Coalition for the Homeless. It’s the front page from the previous day’s New York Daily News, showing a photo of a luxury hotel room and one of the tabloid’s trademark hysteria-inducing headlines: “Homeless — for $329 a night.”

As she passes the article over her desk to a visitor, Brosnahan, the coalition’s executive director for 10 years, wears an expression that clearly says, “This is all I need.”

In a city with an estimated 25,000 homeless people and a mayor, Rudolph Guiliani, who’s made his mark cleaning up streets and fighting crime, getting people to understand the reality of homelessness is a full-time job for advocates like Brosnahan. Headlines like the one in the Daily News don’t help.

The article was about how a branch of the New York City government, which is under a court order to provide appropriate housing for homeless people with AIDS, has occasionally rented rooms for them at luxury hotels in Manhattan. The rooms are a stop-gap solution for when there are no vacancies at moderate-cost hotels.

“Here’s the real story,” Brosnahan says, holding up a second clipping, an article that ran inside the same day’s paper. It explains how homeless AIDS sufferers in New York are shuffled from place to place and as often as not end up at the doors of vermin-infested fleabag hotels. Rather than stay with the rats, many opt to take their chances on the street.

The Coalition for the Homeless, the nation’s oldest organization of its kind, wants the city to invest in permanent housing to offset New York’s disappearing supply of affordable housing. The Guiliani administration says that would be even more expensive than occasionally dispatching homeless people to ritzy hotels.

The Daily News story may sell papers and expose an absurd situation, but it detracts from an idea the coalition tries desperately to get across: Homelessness is about the city’s permanent housing stock.

One of the chief misconceptions about homelessness in New York, Brosnahan says, is that homeless people are mainly mentally ill or substance-abusing men. Only about 6,000 to 8,000 of the city’s nightly homeless fall into those categories, she says. The rest of the 25,000 are families with young children whose chief problem is affording the city’s skyrocketing real estate prices and rents. The organization reports that New York City lost more than half a million apartments with rents less than $500 per month between 1991 and 1999. The only new housing being built these days, Brosnahan says, is luxury housing.

Responding to the Daily News story is only one task demanding the attention of the executive director this day, and it’s not even at the top of her list. Before arriving at the organization’s scruffy headquarters in Lower Manhattan, she’d been to a meeting at a historic armory on the Upper West Side. The coalition is trying stave off the eviction of a hundred homeless women in a shelter that since the 1980s has occupied two floors of the five-story structure. The rest of it has been used for exhibitions of art and antiques. The State of New York, which owns the building, wants to renovate it into a for-profit cultural center.

Born over 20 years ago out of grassroots efforts, the Coalition for the Homeless has grown into a far-reaching advocacy organization. Its first legal victory was the right-to-shelter settlement of a lawsuit originally brought by a homeless man in the 1970s. By court order, the coalition remains an independent monitor of conditions in municipal shelters.

Last year the group helped win a federal judgment against a pair of business partnerships found to be employing homeless people below minimum wage. The organizations, formed to improve the appearance of the central business district, were paying homeless people $1 to $1.50 an hour for work that was supposed to focus on training and help broaden their economic opportunities. It was discovered that some were being used interchangeably with regular-pay workers in custodial, laundry and other jobs. Some were also promised housing. The only housing provided to one plaintiff, a woman fleeing an abusive marriage, was permission to sleep on plastic chairs or the table where she worked.

There were also charges that an administrator had organized “goon squads” of homeless employees to roust fellow homeless people out of ATM alcoves.

Brosnahan said the business partnerships were a ruse for slave labor. “It was Dickensian, but here it was in Midtown Manhattan.”

In addition to its courtroom battles, the coalition provides several direct services to homeless people, including delivery of hot meals to 800 people living on the street each day and a voice-mailbox service that provides people a phone number where potential employers can reach them after they interview for jobs.

The coalition’s headquarters is one of the few places in the city where people can walk in without an appointment and get help and referrals for legal problems, food, clothing, shelter, drug treatment and issues related to housing and HIV infection. Looking out to the reception area and seeing a handful of people waiting, the executive director declares it “a ghost town” compared to earlier in the week, when crowds made it difficult exit the building’s ancient phone-booth-size, operator-controlled elevator.

The coalition’s office is on bustling block of Chambers Street where the Wing-Wah Chinese restaurant, Kiran II Indian Cuisine and Fresco Tortillas coexist with fruit vendors and an assortment of small discount stores. Racks of low-priced towels, sheets, sunglasses, tube socks, baseball caps and other merchandise extend out onto the sidewalk from several storefronts.

Brosnahan and her staff work upstairs from a women’s clothing and shoe store called Easy Pickens. The space is cramped and far from elegant, with scuffed walls, mismatched furniture and scratched and dented file cabinets. The group’s frequent battles with the Guiliani administration inevitably take on the appearance of David versus Goliath, and the group’s humble headquarters easily fits the analogy. But the person most often pictured wielding the slingshot is a woman.

In a profile two years ago, a New York Times reporter said of Brosnahan that she “has what it takes to make bureaucrats cringe: she is articulate, photogenic, wise about the media — and oh so passionate, even after a decade in a job smoldering with burnout potential.”

Brosnahan’s introduction to politics and the issue of homelessness came in 1988, when an acquaintance offered her a job with the campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. After the election loss, she returned to New York and was hired by one of the co-founders of the homeless coalition. Less than two years later she succeeded him.

Although her media smarts have made her a familiar figure locally in battles with the city’s popular mayor, the last time she actually talked to Guiliani, she says, was eight years ago during the mayoral campaign leading up to Guiliani’s victory over incumbent David Dinkins. The coalition obtained an advance copy of a speech Guiliani was set to deliver. In it he planned to announce his intention to go after the right-to-shelter principal. With the heads-up, the coalition was able to schedule a news conference 20 minutes ahead of Guiliani’s speech and at the same location to challenge what he was about to say.

According The New York Times profile, Brosnahan has become the “media’s madonna for the homeless” in New York City, a label she laughs off as the reporter “just being silly.” But the spiritual dimension of her commitment is obvious. On the wall behind her desk hangs a poster of Jesus that asks, “How can you worship a homeless man on Sunday and ignore one on Monday?” On the opposite wall a sign printed on brown corrugated cardboard reads, “Something’s wrong when Frigidaire and Westinghouse do a better job of housing the homeless than New York City.”

At least one of her adversaries doesn’t question the sincerity of her compassion.

“No doubt, she’s doing God’s work,” says Robert Mascali, chief of staff to Martin Oesterreich, commissioner of the city’s Department of Homeless Services. He hastens to add, “We feel like we’re doing God’s work, too. The problem we have with Mary is we would like to get a little credit for that once in a while.”
Brosnahan says she thinks the role of the coalition is “to prod government to invest in what works.” Under her direction the organization has grown from a budget of $1 million to $8 million. The staff has expanded from 13 people when she arrived to 85 today.

“I’m scared of more growth to be honest with you,” she says.

But she also marvels at the quality of people who continue to join the organization in spite of low wages and cramped surroundings. “A bunch of angels,” she calls them, and they seem to be a major factor in keeping burnout in check.

“Saying this may get me into trouble with some of the people I know with other groups, but the nonprofit arena often has an aura of mediocrity. The staff at the coalition isn’t like that. I think we just kick ass on a daily basis. That kind of energy can be addictive sometimes.”

Ed Cohen is an associate editor of this magazine.

Coalition for the Homeless
89 Chamber Street
New York, NY 10007