Mary Brosnahan, 51

Executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless, the city’s longest-standing organization for displacement advocacy and services

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Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless

Mary Brosnahan, executive director of the Coalition for the Homeless Photograph: Adam Krause

Mary Brosnahan never intended for homelessness advocacy to become her life's work. But after finishing her gig as a press aide for Michael Dukakis and settling in the East Village, in a building not far from Cooper Union, it was hard to think about anything else. Going about her daily routine, she noticed a sizable group of men encamped in the area. “I started talking to them daily and realized very quickly that a lot of different things were going on,” she says. “Some were trying to get day-labor jobs and using a fire hydrant to clean up, while others were mentally ill and practically unable to carry on a conversation.” These interactions alerted her to the issue’s seriousness and depth, and her boyfriend at the time prompted her to investigate job opportunities with the Coalition for the Homeless (coalitionforthehomeless.org), the nation’s longest-standing displacement-advocacy and service organization.

Six months after Brosnahan joined the group, the founder and executive director resigned, and Brosnahan took over the role—along with stewardship of 13 employees and a million-dollar budget. Today, the coalition boasts a staff of 80 full-time workers and assists 3,500 people on a daily basis. “Our office is one of the few places that people can come, without an appointment, to meet with a crisis counselor,” says Brosnahan. “[Their problems] run the gamut: from an increasing number of families with small children being denied shelter to people who’ve just found work but lack professional clothes.” Among the 11 direct-service projects run by the coalition are a sleep-away camp for unhoused children, job training for women, and permanent housing for individuals and families. “What continues to drive me is that the problem is eminently solvable,” says Brosnahan.

One of the organization’s key direct-service initiatives is the Grand Central Feeding Program, a nightly distribution program that covers uptown and downtown Manhattan and the Bronx. “There’s a sort of tacit agreement [between society and the homeless] where these people disappear during daylight hours,” notes Brosnahan. “But in the evenings, you’ll see anywhere between 30 and 150 people lining up for food when a van arrives.” Volunteers typically join in once a week handing out food, clothing and blankets. “It’s great triage, because we can meet people [in need] where they are and encourage them to visit the office if they need more help,” says Brosnahan. Since homeless children’s needs often fall by the wayside, the Coalition also dedicates resources to sustaining an after-school program, Bound for Success, which provides homework tutoring and creative activities (art projects, poetry workshops, nutrition seminars), as well as Camp Homeward Bound, a summer sleepaway program for kids ages 8 to 13. “It’s like a typical camp in that it’s on a waterfront in Bear Mountain, but it also has very enhanced educational programs because the kids are so far behind on their schoolwork,” says Brosnahan. “You just see kids becoming kids again.”

GET INVOLVED: Depending on your professional expertise and personal interests, you can pitch in with one of three departments: direct-service opportunities, development or advocacy. The first area provides patrons with necessities like food, job training, housing and crisis intervention; the second focuses on organizing and staffing fund-raising events and benefits; and the third is dedicated to increasing public awareness and helping with litigation. Most activities require a 60-to-90-minute training session; they are scheduled as needed. But if you want to make an impact almost immediately, sign up to work one of the Grand Central Feeding Program routes—no prep required. You’ll help out anywhere from once a month to several times a week, administering hearty meals, clothes and covers. To get assigned a shift, it’s best to call at least a week in advance.

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5 comments
Ann Elphick
Ann Elphick

I'm a friend Jeff Geist and he suggested I get in touch with you. I'm 75, handicapped and need to find housing by June 1st eviction, otherwise they will put me in a homeless shelter. Please call me at 917-472-7043. Ann Elphick

Lois
Lois

Thank You for caring and doing the common good for the less fortunate. We need a hands up sometime because we lose our way regardless of what the cause. Mary thank yor for tireless energy and efforts you care .

Laura Larese
Laura Larese

Mary. You continue to be an inspiration. You have a huge heart. I am very proud of you. Laura Larese

Silvana Southard
Silvana Southard

Mary thanks for sending me the article. I love it. You have done so much for this community. Mary thank you for putting food on the table and to give back some dignity to the homeless in NYC!

Joseph Brosnahan
Joseph Brosnahan

My Little sister Mary Brosnahan so proud of all she has accomplished with the start of 13 employees to the 3,500 and a staff second to none. I am so proud of Mary and her son Quinn . Even her son has the uncanny ability when was eight years old when was so cold,Mom it's not a good day for the Homless. I can say marys unconditional Love for those who cannot help themselves due to esp this ression. I can say this: The Apple Does not fall Far From the Tree I hope those that can give just a little goes a long way. God Bless all The Coalition esp all the unselfish vollentears and endless hours of work are gelling not moment to soon Please be good to the homless so thankful JBrosnahan JBrosnahan