Winsome McDermott, Social Worker

Photo: Jake Chessum

What do you do?
I run a men’s shelter on the Bowery. It’s a transitional residence for 60 men—30 long-term shelter-stayers and 30 working homeless. I’ve been in this field for twenty years, and this is the first time I’ve been a director, so I’m a little bit drunk with power.

Sounds like a tough job.
It’s challenging. One of the harder issues I work with is substance abuse. Another big thing is their being underemployed. A messenger who earns $6 an hour can’t find housing in New York. And then we had a convicted pedophile, and it was so hard for him to find housing. It was extremely gratifying when we got him placed. It’s a simple thing for me: I like people, and it really does make you feel good when you help somebody at a low point become stable.

Is it hard being a woman looking after all those men?
It is a weird thing. If the guys are younger, they relate to me as a mother, and if they’re older, they treat me like a daughter. They respect me because I bring a maternal softness, but I do have to be strong and firm and decisive.

How do you dress for work?
I can’t be too provocative! I strive to be comfortable yet professional. I’m in my mid-forties now, but when I was in my early twenties I was definitely one of those club kids—my favorite was Danceteria, but I did the Pyramid and all the other “in” clubs at that moment in time.

Where did you get this coat?
The coat is Lands’ End, and I found the hat on Prince and Broadway at a street vendor. I’m Pisces, so I love blue. I wanted to go for something a little bit brighter this winter.

Is it strange to have a shelter in the middle of such a trendy, expensive neighborhood?
If there’s a staff event, we can’t really afford to go out and eat around here. One of the downfalls is the clubs—people can be pretty rowdy. In September, someone got fatally shot in front of our building, and another individual was shot in the foot and ran inside. We used to have an open door, but now I’ve put a camera up front—I want to protect my guys from those kinds of things.

Winsome McDermott, Social Worker