By Ting Yu
September 30, 2002 12:00 PM

On an icy winter night in 1988, Macy DeLong huddled on the stoop of a Cambridge, Mass., bookstore, hoping to find a warm place to sleep. It was a few blocks—but worlds away—from the Harvard University lab where she once worked as a biology researcher. Suffering from bipolar disorder, she had willfully deserted her comfortable home in Lexington, Mass., for life on the street. “I reached an emotional point which was not rational,” says DeLong, now 53. “I couldn’t live with myself. I walked out of my house. I left my husband.”

Although she recovered enough to return home in six months—her condition gradually improved, she says, after she stopped taking prescribed antidepressants—DeLong’s perspective was altered forever. “I had wandered through what the state had to offer a homeless person, from dangerous shelters to indifferent doctors,” she recalls. “No one offered me an opportunity to work, to sign a lease, to get back my life.”

While still on the street, she launched Solutions at Work, now a nonprofit agency that provides the homeless with transitional employment, low-cost moving services, free cars, furniture and clothing. DeLong estimates that Solutions has assisted nearly 65,000 people since its inception in 1989. “Macy takes everyone as an individual and doesn’t categorize them,” says Colleen Thomas, 38, a once-homeless mother of three and now one of the agency’s program managers. “Just having her believe in me has given me back my pride and self-esteem.”

For DeLong, those things were in plentiful supply until she reached her late 30s. The eldest of three daughters of William, 79, a retired finance executive for General Motors, and Maggie, 78, a homemaker, the Illinoisborn DeLong was a bright student who majored in biology at Colby College in Maine. Wed to an engineer just after her 1971 graduation, she was soon hired as a technician by Harvard’s developmental biology lab. Her career flourished, and the couple hoped to start a family.

Yet in 1985 DeLong’s seemingly idyllic life began to unravel. Unable to have a child—she suffered through an ectopic pregnancy and two failed rounds of in vitro fertilization—she grew despondent. After spending three months in the hospital for a suicide attempt, she was released with a prescription for antidepressants and soon embarked on a carnival ride of manic highs and crushing lows. “I went from overseeing a lab of 25 people to not being able to tell someone how to wash a test tube without having a panic attack,” recalls DeLong, who left Harvard in 1988. “I became completely dysfunctional.”

Refusing help from her husband and family (“All they knew is that I was behaving totally irresponsibly—no one knew why,” she says), DeLong abandoned suburbia, sleeping on subway gratings or in her car and scrounging meals at community centers. Over the next six months she faced a daily round of indignities and frustrations. “I told shelter workers I was a biologist at Harvard and they thought I was delusional,” she says. “The way they treated me was so demeaning.”

DeLong grew determined to improve the lot of her fellow street-dwellers. She began by distributing blankets and referring people to shelters, then joined the board of the fledgling Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance, a policy and advocacy organization. When she learned that a city-run furniture bank for the poor was about to close, she offered to take it over. Cashing out $20,000 from her Harvard retirement fund—she would later resign—she quickly expanded the operation to include a clothing exchange, a moving service and other forms of aid.

Soon afterward, in June 1989, she returned to Lexington. Her marriage ended three months later. “It was a relief,” she says. “So many things had happened; I had changed so much. While it was hard, it needed to be.” For the next nine years, DeLong pursued her mission despite continuing mood swings, until she was diagnosed as bipolar in 1998 and given proper medication. Meanwhile, Solutions thrived. Today it has an annual budget of $500,000 (funded by government grants and private donations) and a paid staff of seven. DeLong herself earns $37,000 a year and has opened her eight-room home as a temporary haven for homeless friends.

Now stable through therapy and meditation—with her doctors’ approval, DeLong went off medication in June—she is grateful for her second shot at a legacy. “I can’t change the world by having children and leaving my genes behind,” she says. “With Solutions, I have a chance to do something permanent.”

Ting Yu

Anne Driscoll in Cambridge