The UNH Blog

Settlement Houses Are an Essential Component of the Social Safety Net

Friday, January 04, 2013
UNH was asked by IBM to participate on their “Citizen IBM” blog, and I posted the entry below. It focuses on the important role settlement houses play in providing a  social safety net, 100 years ago and today. Thanks for reading. The link to the original post is here

As United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) enters the New Year, we reflect on the successes and hardships that our member agencies encountered in 2012. UNH is a membership organization, consisting of 38 independent settlement houses and community centers in various neighborhoods in New York City. Our services reach over half a million low and moderate income residents each year. UNH works to strengthen and support the neighborhood-based model of providing social services, and does this through policy development, advocacy work, and capacity-building activities.

But first, the 100+ year old question: What is a settlement house? Also known as community centers, these agencies provide comprehensive social, educational and recreational services in specific neighborhoods – empowering residents and providing the tools to lead successful and productive lives.

Settlement houses sprang from the social reform movement in the late 19th and early 20thCenturies, when groups of generally affluent volunteers “settled in” to urban neighborhoods around the country. The first settlement house in the United States was established 125 years ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Settlement house founders’ immediate goals were to help impoverished immigrants to become “Americanized,” but they quickly became champions for safer housing, improved public health and decent working conditions. Early settlement house leaders helped create the framework of the social safety net millions rely on today. These leaders fought intently to create change first in their neighborhoods – a foreshadowing of New York City’s popular “locavore” movement today – and then nationally and even internationally.

 Settlement houses have continued to adapt over the last 125 years to meet the ever-changing needs of the communities they serve, and have become a support system that has earned the trust of local residents, government agencies and the philanthropic sector. These enduring models of social support are embedded in their communities, giving them a unique and intimate knowledge of the needs of their neighbors. That special connection with their communities is what gave settlement houses an unparalleled role and perspective when it came to offering relief to Hurricane Sandy survivors.

While acting as highly effective “first responders” in the weeks following the hurricane has been just another important community service on top of a year of meaningful work for these agencies – including offering quality child care and after-school programs for children of working families, operating thousands of units of low-income housing, and serving more than 1.5 million meals to residents in need – these nonprofit agencies are continually facing more and more challenges.

Shifts in funding trends, complex reporting requirements to both private donors and government funders, and new government contracts with restrictive mandates are a challenging reality for settlement houses. Historically, government helped support and maintain a safety net for low-income families by contracting with social services agencies to provide vital programming. However, with government deficits at the city, state and federal levels, services for people in need are often caught in the squeeze of deficit reduction.

Settlement houses have shown their resilience and relevance as trustworthy community hubs for over 100 years. We hope that cuts to core services by government are not the tip of an iceberg of even worse actions, but we know that these perilous times demand that UNH and other advocacy organizations continue to be the strongest possible voice for the important goal of helping all members of our communities.

At a recent Neighborhood Revitalization conference in Washington D.C., I heard a few buzz words that describe leading-edge community work. All of these terms could describe today’s settlement houses – anchor institutions that promote civic engagement and form sustainable communities. Let’s not leave these historic yet incredibly relevant and effective organizations out of the current conversation when it comes to sensible investment in social services. UNH agencies are often considered to have the most effective approach to “community building,” i.e., involving neighbors and residents in determining their own priorities and engaging them in working for local change. This approach will continue to produce stronger and safer neighborhoods and, ultimately, a greater New York City for all of us.

Read the post here>>

Hurricane Sandy Affirms the Critical Value of NYC Settlement Houses and the Enduring Value of the Place-Based Approach

Friday, November 30, 2012

One month ago Hurricane Sandy hit the New York City area with unprecedented force.  The impact of the “superstorm” was immediate, but recovery in many of our communities will take months, if not years.   Nonprofit agencies, among them member agencies of United Neighborhood Houses, acted decisively, effectively and quickly to meet the needs of their clients and neighbors; indeed, staff from nonprofits accurately can be described as critical “first responders” too.     As the head of the federation of New York City’s 38 settlement houses and community centers, I was enormously impressed by the work of our members who provided relief, and enormously proud of their leadership. 

The 38 member agencies of United Neighborhood Houses in New York City come from varying traditions.  Some are the original settlement houses in the United States, now over 100 years old.  Others are younger community development corporations, founded to promote housing and economic development.  Others began as community action agencies or food pantries.

No matter their origins, all UNH members today are multi-service hubs of social service, education and recreation in their communities, serving as safe and welcoming centers of community life, primarily focused on assisting and engaging their low and moderate income neighbors.

With the exception of 9/11, no other event in recent New York City history has highlighted the critical importance of these agencies and their place-based approach more than Hurricane Sandy. While the storm had an impact on many different neighborhoods in the City, there is no question in my mind that the neighborhoods that were best able to deal with the storm’s impact were those that had a robust nonprofit infrastructure, in fact those that had a settlement house embedded in their community. 

Before FEMA, before the National Guard, before the City or State government, our agencies were on the front lines, delivering food, blankets, flashlights, comfort and support.  And after these governmental agencies move on to the next crisis, our agencies will remain as anchors in their communities to help them with longer term recovery activities like  mental health counseling, housing assistance, and benefits and entitlements navigation.

The reason our agencies were and will continue to be so effective is that they really know their communities.   When the storm hit, our agencies knew exactly which apartments and public housing developments housed vulnerable older adults or disabled people, so supplies could be delivered to them in a targeted way, even if it meant staff walking up 12 flights of stairs in the dark and cold.  Staff from our agencies knew which doors to knock on to find the pre-school children enrolled in the child care centers that were flooded, so they could make sure these children found a place in other programs right away and their parents could get back to work. 

I am firmly convinced that there is intrinsic and enduring value when nonprofit organizations like ours fully understand the residents and neighborhoods in which they work, in many cases over decades.  Hurricane Sandy reminded us once again that this is an important and very tangible truth.   

Mourning the Loss of Dr. James Dumpson

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

I mourn the loss of Dr. James Dumpson, who died last week at age 103 after a long, full, accomplished life.  Jim was one of the most influential leaders in the social welfare field in the 20th century in New York City, for sure, and nationally as well.  The NY Times obituary gives a good summary of his work – but for me he was more than a great name in the field.  He was a lovely and generous man who helped nurture many young people early in their careers.  I was one of them.  In the l980s, when I was a Staff Associate at Citizens Committee for Children, Jim co-chaired the Emergency Alliance for Homeless Families.  His co-chair was another distinguished leader and former HRA Commissioner, Mitch Ginsberg.  I was privileged to work as their staff coordinator for the Alliance, and learned a lot from them about how to relate to government if you wanted to move policy.   Jim and Mitch were grey eminences for sure.  Then, a couple of years later, Manhattan Borough President David N. Dinkins appointed Jim to be the Chair of his Task Force on Housing for Homeless Families, when I was a Policy Analyst on the Dinkins’ staff.  I was asked to step in as a Staff Coordinator for that Task Force, along with my colleague Marcia Smith.  We produced a report “A Shelter is Not a Home” that still gets some attention and still rings true in many ways.  And again, I learned a lot from Jim about both politics and policy.  May you rest in peace Jim.  Thank you for helping our City in the multiple ways you did. 

Photo Credit: NY Times.

NYC Settlement Houses Fulfill Their Mission After Hurricane Sandy

Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Dear Friends of UNH,

 I write to you to send a few thoughts and updates about UNH and our member settlement houses following the storm last week.

First, although the UNH office was closed all last week, without power or access to email and phones, we happily returned to the office on Monday morning with full capacity. Our staff are safe, and everyone braved the numerous transit challenges to get here. UNH staff members are a terrific and dedicated group.

But even more significantly, I want to share what will not be surprising to any of our friends and supporters. The agencies that comprise the UNH membership have and continue to act heroically - there's no better word - to address the multiple needs of their communities and of our City's most vulnerable people. Last week, despite absence of transit, shortage of fuel, and lack of electricity, the staff of settlement houses walked, biked, and hitched rides to get to their agencies, even when they found cold and dark buildings when they got there.

Settlement house staff worked evenings and weekends to get food and water, flashlights, blankets, and ice to neighbors who were alone and afraid.  Hundreds of volunteers joined staff as they knocked on doors and ran up and down dark stairwells to make sure their clients and other community residents had what they needed. Agencies opened their doors to welcome people to get warm, get information, and get counseling...regardless of whether they would get reimbursed for doing so.

I believe I can say without reservation that New York City settlement houses truly fulfilled their missions last week... and I have no doubt they will continue to do so in the weeks to come. They do so without certainty of reimbursement or payment. They do it because it is what they do, without fanfare and media attention. Our agencies are anchors in their communities, assuring that neighbors have a safe and caring refuge. There has hardly been a time in our City's history when this sense of refuge was more necessary, and I am enormously proud of their efforts.

Please continue to check back on our Hurricane Sandy Volunteer & Donation Needs page, which we will keep updated as the needs of our member agencies and their communities evolve. There, you will also find some news stories about the incredible work our members have done in the past week. 

Thanks as always for your support.



  Nancy Wackstein signature

Nancy Wackstein

Executive Director

Changes to New York's Managed Long Term Care Plans

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Today I’m thinking about elder care. Making sure my frail 92-year old mother is safe, supported and cared for is a big challenge in my life.   Luckily, she is at home in her apartment in the Bronx, receiving excellent and caring assistance from two dedicated home health aides.  They assist her with bathing, dressing, food preparation and other so-called “activities of daily living”.  Happily she still is able to be at home, and the care she receives makes it possible for me to continue to work while having the peace of mind of knowing that she is safe. In addition, the fact that she is in the community in which she has lived for over 20 years, surrounded by relatives and neighbors who are familiar, makes for a decent quality of life.  When Mom is able to go down to the lobby of her building, or even outside, it is clear that she is in a place where “everyone knows her name”.   Priceless. 

As a New York City resident,  I am not alone  when it comes to caring for an aging family member.  The growth in spending for Medicaid long term care in the downstate region has nearly tripled since 2003. As spending has ballooned, the State has recently mandated  the move of such individuals into managed long term care plans,  as part of the changes to personal care programs proposed last year in the Governor’s Medicaid Redesign Team plan.  The clear aim is to control costs. In light of these decisions and changes, we’d all better be super vigilant to make sure that people like my mom, who are able to thrive in their own apartments and their own communities with the right level of assistance, will continue to have access to the care in their homes that they truly need.   We must make sure the shift to managed care for frail elderly people centers on the needs of the patient, not on the needs of the State to contain costs.   For more on this shift to managed long term care, see UNH’s newest issue brief “The New Frontier: Social Programs for Older Adults and Managed Long Term Care Plans”, prepared by our policy analyst Carin Tinney.   

Click here to download. 

Neighborhood Revitalization in NYC and Beyond

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Earlier this month I had an interesting, even compelling, opportunity to learn first-hand about what 
neighborhood revitalization really means, and in the process to actually learn something new!   In early August I attended the Neighborhood Revitalization conference in Washington DC sponsored by the United Neighborhood Centers of America (UNCA), the national organization of which UNH is a member and on whose Board I sit.  I generally don’t go to very many professional conferences because they’re usually not worth the time out of the office, but I must say that this one felt almost inspiring to this jaded New Yorker, who usually believes that all innovative and interesting work happens exclusively in NYC.  (Yes, I’ve been accused of being a New York exceptionalist!)   I heard repeatedly, through plenaries and workshops at the UNCA conference, some important and recurrent themes and phrases that seemed to be on the lips of government and nonprofit presenters alike: 

“anchor institutions”

“resident engagement”

“cradle to career”

“sustainable communities”

What I walked away believing is that our settlement houses here in NYC can and do easily fit into the latest thinking about neighborhood revitalization and in fact are leaders in this critical work, having already embraced these cutting-edge concepts as part of their community building missions, in some cases over decades.

  • They already are anchor institutions, leading coalitions in their neighborhoods, honest brokers focused on bringing other critical institutions like schools and health care providers together.
  • The most successful UNH agencies are the ones that already have a profound commitment to resident engagement, involving neighbors in decision-making and planning.  Arguably, settlement houses invented “civic engagement” even before foundations adopted the term!
  • Cradle to career?  The early settlement house pioneers used the term “cradle to grave”, but with the increased emphasis today on getting young people decent jobs, this seems like a new twist on our theme and an important way to frame our work with children and teens.
  •  And of course our agencies know that truly sustainable communities are those that have access not just to social services but to transportation, mixed-income housing, health care and parks as well.

At the UNCA conference I learned of impressive neighborhood revitalization efforts going on in other U.S. cities, like Memphis, Cincinnati, Houston and Detroit.  As noted above, I’m usually dismissive, thinking that NYC is so much larger than every place else that no other models ever are relevant or replicable here.  But I was reminded that the key is “neighborhood”, often a matter of a few square blocks.  Neighborhood revitalization CAN and IS happening here, because NYC is nothing but a series of unique neighborhoods and nonprofits that chunk off do-able local efforts are the ones that can succeed.   

It’s refreshing to know that there are in fact a few good ideas happening outside our NYC community … but equally refreshing to know that our agencies are leading the way in their neighborhoods, exemplars of the latest thinking, best practices… and even the newest jargon!

A "Continuum of Care" from NYC's Settlement Houses

Friday, July 20, 2012

I was really pleased and proud yesterday when I learned that 14% - or 1 in every 7 - of the new awards from the NY Department for the Aging for operating senior centers (now re-named Neighborhood Centers) went to UNH member agencies (View the full list).  For decades, settlement houses have been in the forefront of innovation when it comes to helping older adults remain healthy and safe in their homes and communities.   Our members were among the first to pilot programs that now are well established, like social adult day programs and NORCs (naturally occurring retirement communities).

In addition, every day in our City settlement house staff help to keep at-risk older adults in their communities well-fed and well-monitored through Meals-on-Wheels programs and care management.  Some of our member agencies even provide in home personal care services to homebound individuals.  The hallmark of our work with seniors is providing a “continuum of care”, allowing older people to remain attached to their communities and their settlement houses from when they’re perfectly healthy and vibrant through physical and cognitive impairment if it occurs as they age.   So it makes perfect sense to have settlement houses operating such a significant part of the new senior center system.  We believe in offering the services that stimulate minds and bodies, as well as the services that provide a safety net when those minds and bodies begin to fail.  It is part of our decades-long approach and commitment to looking for the strengths in individuals, not solely at their problems or deficits.

Read UNH’s official response.

What Actually is an Essential Municipal Service?

Friday, June 29, 2012

UNH was thick in the fight to restore City-funded child care and after school programs this year in response to the Mayor’s budget proposal …. which would have gutted these services.  The families that use these programs are primarily low-income but working, often at more than one job.  These programs clearly support the economy of the City as well as the ability of individual families to be self-sufficient.  Without changes, the Mayor’s proposed budget would have reduced the number of children enrolled in these programs by a staggering 47,000.    

Happily, the City budget agreement this week between the City Council and the Mayor contains unprecedented restorations to ameliorate these unprecedented cuts.  UNH and the Campaign for Children were very pleased with this news, and I believe our advocacy was instrumental in accomplishing this restoration of $150 million. 

However,  after a couple of days of musing, one does begin to think about the absurdity of it all.  Months of effort by hundreds of people, both inside and outside of City government, to restore funding that SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN ON THE CHOPPING BLOCK IN THE FIRST PLACE.  Why? Would the Mayor ever have imagined imposing a 50% cut to the Police, Fire or Sanitation Departments?  Then why was it OK to cut these EQUALLY ESSENTIAL services for children? 

I’m a lifelong New Yorker.  Yes, I like my garbage picked up, my streets lit, my local police precinct fully staffed.  These municipal services make New York a livable place and a City that works.   But so do support services for working families like child care and after school!  So I really must wonder why child care and after school programs for kids are lower on the hierarchy of priorities than other municipal services.  Because they’re mainly used by low income people, not all of us?

We cannot run another Campaign for Children like this next year.  We must get to the point where these services – and senior centers and supported housing and mental health too – are understood to be as essential to the future health and vibrancy of New York City as police, fire and sanitation.


Settlement Houses: The Best of Times and the Worst of Times

Wednesday, June 20, 2012
These are my remarks from the UNH Annual Meeting, held on June 12 at Hudson Guild: 

Even though I am now blogging, I am no novelist, so I will borrow without shame from the great Charles Dickens. For NYC settlement houses, these are the best of times and the worst of times.

The best because our agencies continue to be recognized as innovators and leaders in the City in pursuing new approaches to helping those in need and starting new initiatives that build on their history of helping communities by providing holistic and comprehensive services. In fact, the settlement house approach - now called place-based by the Obama administration among others - has re-emerged among policymakers and thinkers in our field as the best answer to addressing poverty. Though generally calling themselves something other than "settlement houses", the most effective nonprofits doing community work today are using our experience and our lessons and building on our successes. They have learned what we already have demonstrated: that piecemeal strategies don't work, because in reality people's lives are not fragmented into separate buckets the way funding and government agencies are. Whether housing, child care, recreation, physical and mental health... these are all the things that most people need, and most of the time they are best delivered when found locally in friendly welcoming places staffed by people who look like them.

The locavore movement in food has become so popular in NYC today that it's hard to find a restaurant that's not calling itself "farm to table". Settlement houses are the locavore institutions of the social services field! We have the freshest approaches because we are closest to the ground. We know the problems that are emerging, we know the problems that are not going away, and we involve local people in trying to solve them.

But all is not coming up roses. (I guess it's time for me to stop this metaphor!) These also are the most difficult and challenging times for our field that I've experienced in my over 30 years doing this work... the worst of times indeed.

The landscape under us shifts continually: new trends in funding; new accountability demands pressing for results; ever more complex reporting requirements to both private donors and government funders; new types of government RFPs with new kinds of mandates.

But perhaps the most challenging reality for settlement houses and other nonprofits today is the shifting commitment we are facing toward helping people in need, especially regarding the role of government in doing so.

The widespread questioning of the historic social contract and the role of government in supporting and maintaining a safety net for low income families and individuals is being fueled by government deficits at the city, state, and federal levels. These are forcing choices about priorities, with services for low income people often caught in the squeeze of deficit reduction. 

I do not believe that these debates will be solved anytime soon, meaning that the pressures on nonprofits will not recede anytime soon either. Both agencies and communities will increasingly feel the impact of funding retrenchment.

A real life example of this threat is the proposed deep City reductions to both child care and after school currently part of the Mayor's budget for the new fiscal year. For decades these programs have been part of the core services offered by settlement houses. In fact, many of the earliest settlement houses in the 1890s got their start as providers of child care to immigrant working families.

Right now, both the early childhood and after school care systems will be reduced dramatically if the cuts contained in the Mayor's budget proposal go through, not only threatening the stability of our member agencies, but the stability of thousands of working families as well.

We must hope that these cuts to core services are not the tip of the iceberg of even worse government budget actions to come, but we must be prepared if it is. There is real urgency about making the case that increased need in communities and increased demand for settlement house help will not go away. We must use facts like these:
  • 1/3 of NYC children live in poverty
  • 40% of NYC households are immigrants, with 2/3 of public school students from immigrant families
  • 1 in 8 New Yorkers are 65 & older; by 2030, 1 in 5 will be older adults
I believe that UNH agencies, when provided with the proper support, are uniquely situated to address the needs of the low income and immigrant population of New York.

Our network today:
  • Is 37 agencies across 5 boroughs
  • Serves 500,000 New Yorkers ever year at over 400 program sites
  • Employs 10,000 staff and 7,500 volunteers
  • Has an aggregate budget of one-half billion dollars, in both private and public funds
But in order to adequately serve people in need in communities across the 5 boroughs our agencies will continue to need both government support to maintain core services and a flow of private and corporate dollars in order to continue to innovate and try new approaches.

I believe these perilous times demand that UNH continue to be the strongest possible voice for the importance of helping all the members of our communities. Yes, those who are in crisis and experiencing homelessness or mental illness, those affected by domestic violence or child abuse, those who are living on the precipice must be our priority if we are to call ourselves a humane and civilized society... but we cannot forget those ordinary people just looking to support their families, who need help finding decent jobs, child care, after school, and elder care. 

Settlement houses recognize that people have their ups and downs and are determined to be there for them when they fall. But in order to function as our City's safety net, our agencies must continue to have access to the kind of support that will allow them to sustain themselves... in the best of times and in the worst of times as well. 

Parents Speak!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012


It shouldn’t really be news, but a recent parent survey conducted by the Campaign for Children, of which UNH is a part, concluded that 50% of parents using child care and 36% of parents using after-school said they would quit their job to stay home with their child(ren) if these programs were no longer available. Many of the parents who responded to the survey are participants in settlement house programs that are at risk of closing in neighborhoods across the City. For all of the key findings and for direct parent quotes, read the full report, titled Parent Voices, here.

On one hand I say “DUH”, news at 11, obvious, who didn’t know that?  On the other hand,  I am struck by how compelling the quotes from parents were as they responded to the survey.  And I’m reminded that our Campaign to save these programs from funding cuts  is not an ideological, theoretical discussion focused on ephemeral concepts.   THESE ARE REAL FAMILIES WITH REAL CHILDREN FACING A REAL CRISIS WHEN THEIR CARE OPTIONS ARE GONE!  

Almost 4,000 parents answered our survey and spoke up.  Now, it’s up to rest of us to join them. 

Email the Mayor and the City Council today or share your own story