Gene Estess worked on Wall Street for two decades and came to feel that he never had really good days. “I didn’t come home with stories to tell or satisfaction or a feeling I’d done anything to help anybody except myself and my family,” he said in an interviewwith The New York Times in 2003.
Mr. Estess changed that, however, abandoning the financial world to lead the Jericho Project, which serves homeless, mentally ill and addicted people in Harlem and the South Bronx. He set up a succession of residences and started initiatives that included helping formerly homeless women regain custody of their children.
Mr. Estess died at 78 on April 9 at his home in the Carroll Gardens neighborhood of Brooklyn. The cause was metastatic cancer, his wife, Pat Schiff Estess, said.
His career switch can be traced to a night after work in 1984 when he marched with the multitudes through Grand Central Terminal to catch a train to Westchester County. He noticed a reclining woman with a black poodle among the sea of homeless people who inhabited the station in the mid-1980s. It stuck in his mind.
The next evening he introduced himself to the woman, who said her name was Patricia and her dog’s was Ebony. She spoke in a soft, pleasant voice, and carried notebooks filled with scrawled writings that turned out to be symptomatic of schizophrenia. Mr. Estess gave her $5, the first of many handouts. He meanwhile looked for permanent housing for Patricia, who was homeless, addicted and mentally ill.
Finally, he found the Jericho Project, a Manhattan-based nonprofit started in 1983. Jericho took Patricia in, and Mr. Estess accepted an invitation to join its board. He was thinking of leaving Wall Street to go to public policy school to learn skills to help homeless people.
“He felt he wasn’t doing anything of great value,” his wife said in an interview. “I mean in a moral and philosophical sense.”
In July 1987, Mr. Estess quit his well-paying job at the peak of the market. His colleagues, he said, thought he was nuts. On Oct. 19, 1987, Black Monday, the market collapsed. Soon, the directorship of Jericho opened up and Mr. Estess applied.
Another man was hired, but he rejected the job because its $17,000 salary was too meager. The board turned to Mr. Estess, in part because he was willing to work for no pay for the first year, his wife said. He served as director for 18 years, retiring in 2005. Today the Jericho Project serves 1,500 adults and children, including more than 500 military veterans, with housing and services. It says it spends $12,000 a year for each adult client — less than half the cost of a cot in a New York City shelter.
Gene Martin Estess was born on June 1, 1935, in Moline, Ill., and grew up in nearby Rock Island, Ill. His family owned a department store, and he told Story Corps, a nonprofit oral history project, that he grew up “spoiled.” He had an “attitude,” he said, “that I could get away with anything — and did.”
He graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, then returned home to work in the family store. In 1965, he headed to Wall Street.
“I wanted the best for me and mine,” he told The Times. “I wanted what every red-blooded young man and woman wanted: a piece of the rock.”
Mr. Estess’s first marriage, to the former Marilyn Rosenberg, ended in divorce. In addition to his wife of 37 years, he is survived by their two sons and two daughters, Noah Estess, Peter Wohl, Andrea Wohl and Jen Wohl; three daughters from his first marriage, Alison Estess, Valerie Estess and Meredith Estess Hulbert; his sister, Barbara Leber; and nine grandchildren.
Mr. Estess cautioned against exaggerating his dramatic change of life. “Please understand,” he said, “it was nothing religious. It wasn’t Godlike.”