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One On 1: Homeless Advocate Mary Brosnahan Sullivan

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NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of Mary Brosnahan Sullivan, Executive Director of the Coalition for the Homeless.

Yes, Mary Brosnahan Sullivan takes her job at the Coalition for the Homeless seriously, but herself and her public profile? Not so much.

“You know, [I’m] Mary Brosnahan, scrappy homeless advocate," she says self-effacingly.

This "scrappy homeless advocate" was born and bred in the Midwest, and came to New York in the mid-80’s after graduating from Notre Dame University. She joined the coalition in 1989, and became its executive director a year later.

Some things have changed through the years. Much has remained the same, including her passion for the issue.

“One thing I love about the coalition is it's not really a charity - it's about social justice,” she says. “I believe that kid is entitled to food and entitled to a roof over his head. If we want that kid to become a productive member of society, why not invest in those cost-effective provisions? Without that, there’s not a chance in hell that kid's going to make it."

The coalition says there are 39,000 in the city’s shelter system, an all-time record that includes 17,000 kids. There are plenty of stories behind the numbers.

“We run a great camp for homeless kids up at Bear Mountain, and there’s nothing like, when you’re really despondent, to go up there and sit on the dock and have some kid come up and stroke your hair and talk to you as a kid, and you had just met that kids two weeks ago and they were just as hard and angry and bitter as no child should ever have to be,” says Brosnahan Sullivan.

The Mary Brosnahan Sullivan that the public sees makes her point on television representing the coalition at news conferences. But privately, between the time she spends at her downtown office and the Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband and young son, Mary Brosnahan Sullivan faces many of the same dilemmas we all face on the street and in the subway: to give or not to give?

“What I try to do is carry around some extra MetroCards with me, and I give them a MetroCard with my business card," she says. “I have to let it go at that point. If they come, that's great, and sometimes they do and that's a real breakthrough.”

Mary Brosnahan Sullivan deals with homelessness all day, and occasionally at night when she joins the coalition workers and volunteers for food runs around the city. Her husband John also works with the homeless.

So, is there any getting away from it?

“I can,” she says. “But it’s just so hard. I run the same gauntlet as everyone else. It’s hard to just let loose and have a great time when you know, especially on a bitterly cold night, is someone going to make it? You see somebody under a blanket and you think, ÎShould I go shake that person?’ or, ÎWe have a dinner reservation to keep.’ That's not a fun choice."

But there are some lighter moments. For example, John Sullivan was working with an obsessive-compulsive woman who loved to clean and loved cats. The story goes that she threw one of her cats out the window.

“John said, ÎI think we need to give her a second chance. If you take the cats away, the cats are her life,’” says Brosnahan Sullivan. “At John's going away party, I was six months visibly pregnant, and I walked in and she walked up and introduced herself to me and she said, 'Mary, I can't wait to baby sit your child!' She saw the look on my face and she said,'’Or I could clean your stove?' And I said, ÎYou know, our stove really needs some help.’"

But the light moments are few and far between. There are battles, debates and discussions with those who disagree with the coalition's policies.

In the newspapers, Mary Brosnahan Sullivan has been called a “veteran scold,” a “she-devil,” a “vagrancy entrepreneur” and a “poverty promoter.”

“You know, ok, call me a she-devil — it’s tomorrow’s fish wrappings. Let’s move on to what the real deal is,” she says.

Perhaps the slings and arrows of the last 15 years don't mean much to Mary Brosnahan Sullivan because she's seen genuine tragedy in her own life, her family's life: a sister who was killed in a car accident; years later, a brother who committed suicide; and another brother who succumbed to a drug overdose.

“To use the word Îdevastated’ is an understatement,” she says. “It's unfathomable. In both cases, what could I have done? I was trying to be supportive and I had no idea it was at that point. The shock factor is just totally shocking.”

So how does a kid from a large Irish Catholic family who grew up in suburban Chicago and Detroit become the most prominent homeless advocate in the biggest city in the country? You can start with a vacation to Italy in the late 80’s, and a visit to Michaelangelo's “Pieta” at the Vatican.

"This artist had such incredible passion, and I was thinking, ÎWhat am I doing? Wouldn't it be great to create a life that was that full of passion?’" she says.

That passion was on display every night around the dinner table growing up in a family with eight kids.

“Everybody was welcome to their own opinion, but you’d better be able to defend it,” she says. “And speak clearly and have a sense of humor about it.”

Many considered homelessness a sympathetic cause in the 1980’s.

“I came in at the advent of the backlash phase, which was early 1989 through the early 90’s,” she says. “People had become burnt out on homelessness.”

Brosnahan Sullivan credits the Ed Koch, David Dinkins and Mario Cuomo administrations with bring down the numbers of homeless by building affordable housing, with thousands of units designed for the homeless.

The relationship between the coalition and Rudolph Giuliani’s administration was significantly more contentious. There were frequent public battles.

Brosnahan Sullivan even showed up at one of the mayor's news conferences in 1999.

“If you decide you are going to sleep on a city street or in a city park, we're not going to allow you to do that,” Giuliani said at the news conference.

“I think that he's a coward, and I think he basically likes to beat up on defenseless people on the streets to score big political points," Brosnahan Sullivan said afterwards.

Does she enjoy the fight?

“I do, but at a certain point you get punch drunk, especially after the Giuliani fight," she says.

Under Brosnahan Sullivan's leadership, the coalition has run a job training program for women designed to prepare them for the workplace. But her critics have claimed that the coalition, by not linking a shelter bed to work for the city have kept the homeless, in the words of critic Heather McDonald of the Manhattan Institute, "marginalized and infantilized,” and that the coalition enables the homeless.

“Do I think people should take personal responsibility? Absolutely. But how do we define that social contract so that people will one day become productive members of society," says Brosnahan Sullivan.

You may disagree with some of her policies, but there is no denying her devotion to the cause and the coalition, a devotion that at one point took its toll.

“I regret during those years probably not tending to personal relationships or family or that kind of thing,” she says. “But I was able to pull it around. When I met John everything changed. Since [our son] Quinn has come into our life that's changed the equation, because I used to work every night until 7:30 or 8:00, but now that’s my quality time with Quinn. Every once in a while you have a 6:00 meeting and you feel a little robbed. You feel like, I give a lot to this place, and I need to be with my kid right now. I think that's a struggle that every working parent goes through.

The Coalition for the Homeless is now in its third decade. But Mary Brosnahan Sullivan is optimistic enough to see a day when the problem of homelessness is under control, and the coalition is no longer needed.

"That's what keeps me going,” she says. “That's one of the things I love about the coalition. A lot of other places maybe feel like the problem is just going to go on forever, but the coalition has always had as its vision, ÎLet's solve this problem and go out of business.’ Nothing would make me happier than to be able to close up shop here and say, ÎWell done.’"

- Budd Mishkin

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