The holidays are a time of giving to others, lending a hand to our neighbors, and spending time with our loved ones. It’s a season of joy and laughter as we celebrate Christ’s birth and bring in the new year. For some, however, hope is dim as they wrestle with challenges such as addiction and misfortune. Those who struggle with cycles of homelessness, substance abuse, and criminal recidivism are often forgotten during the holidays, but they are at the forefront of my mind this season.
The number of Americans living under correctional supervision (whether incarceration, parole, or probation) has more than tripled over the past 35 years. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ latest study, nearly 70 out of every 10,000 people in the United States are incarcerated. This Christmas season, I wanted to highlight an organization that provides hope for individuals and families struggling with these issues.
If you’ve joined me on this blog in the past, you know that one of my passions in serving Arkansas’s Second Congressional District is highlighting organizations and initiatives that work to make our communities stronger and help strengthen families. My interest in transformational and aspirational initiatives goes beyond the area of central Arkansas. When best practices are at work elsewhere in the nation, we learn about them and adopt them for new successes in our own communities. By engaging with other organizations across America that are changing people’s lives, we not only can implement their effective ideas and practices, but we can also partner with them to help change and touch lives of our Arkansas neighbors. It’s for this reason that I visited the Doe Fund in New York City – a nonprofit organization that provides services to help those transitioning from incarceration get the support and skills they need to live independent, self-sufficient lives. (www.doe.org)
In 1985, homelessness in New York City saw both an expansion and an evolution with the emergence of a more wide-ranging, visible homeless population. At its peak in the 1980s, New York City was caring for 22,000 homeless individuals and families each night with an estimated 60,000 people living without shelter in the city. It was during this time that one private individual, George McDonald, set out to make a difference in the lives of as many of the hundreds of homeless living in Grand Central Terminal. Over the course of 700 nights spent handing out sandwiches, clothing, and what little hope he could, George learned something fundamental – to maximize the inherent dignity that all Americans are born with, we must provide opportunity, imbue dignity, and give people reasons to be hopeful.
Perhaps the most pivotal connection that George made in the 1980s was with an older woman whom everyone called “Mama Doe.” On Christmas Eve in 1985, George saw Mama Doe, evicted by transit police, spend hours in the freezing cold. She died soon after returning to Grand Central Terminal on Christmas Day. For George, this tragedy cemented his earlier realization that people needed more hope than what was offered by a sandwich and a kind word if they were going to prosper and live sustainable lives. In honor of Mama Doe, George founded the Doe Fund with the intention of tackling the root problems for those living at the periphery of society: lack of opportunity, skills, and support.
Since 1990, the Doe Fund’s Ready, Willing, and Able program has provided more than 22,000 homeless and formerly incarcerated individuals with transitional work and housing, case management, life skills, educational assistance, occupational training, job readiness, and graduate services. The individuals that participate in this program graduate with the savings and skills to provide for their families and become contributing members of society. Every Christmas, a candlelight vigil in Mama Doe’s honor is held in Grand Central Terminal – to shine a light on the hope that was born from her tragedy – that there is plenty of opportunity using hands and heads – and dignity in all work.
As we enter the New Year, let’s work alongside community partners like the Doe Fund, whose work and achievements in putting our community members on a sustainable path of success and hope are paving the way for a brighter and hope-filled futures for Arkansans and all those living across our nation.
Representative French Hill