The UNH Blog

One Year After Hurricane Sandy

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the day when Hurricane Sandy hit New York City and the surrounding region with unprecedented force and impact.  It therefore seems like a good moment to remember the heroic way in which UNH member agencies -- NYC settlement houses and community centers – led efforts to provide immediate relief and how they continue to help their communities recover.  For visual representation, check out this short UNH video that we debuted at our fundraiser a week ago and that has some great  images of this work.    

Looking back on my 11 years at UNH, I can think of no other event that highlighted more powerfully the importance and absolutely essential role that settlement houses and neighborhood centers play in the life of our city.  It was, in fact, UNH member agencies who turned out to be the on-the-ground first responders… before government relief agencies arrived, before the NYC Housing Authority understood what was going on, even before the Red Cross came in.  Why?  Because our agencies are locally-based, with deep roots in their neighborhoods, with deep understanding of who their neighbors are and what their neighbors need.  They knew who the poor and vulnerable people were in their neighborhoods BEFORE the storm hit … and they have made sure AFTER the storm moved out that these folks would not be left behind when the emergency relief workers had moved on to the next disaster. Today, our agencies remain at the forefront of recovery efforts.  NYC settlement houses and community centers remain devoted not only to rebuilding physical infrastructure, but to rebuilding the human infrastructure as well, the lives of residents whose well-being defines a healthy community. Just as they have done for decades. 

 I have never been more proud of the work our agencies do than I was in the post-Sandy period. 

Public Perceptions: How Myths Undermine the Ability to Servce

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Below are my remarks from the January 14 Human Services Council Summit, "Doubling Down". The panel I spoke on was titled "Public Perceptions: How Myths Undermine the Ability to Serve".

One of the many compelling questions the summit organizers asked this panel to consider – when it was still scheduled for November 1st - was:  What will it take to improve the public’s perception of the human services sector and to gain recognition of the contributions nonprofits make to communities”?  A related question they asked was “do we need a “game changer” to make this happen? 

Folks, in the time between when this summit was originally scheduled and today I think we found at least part of the answer to this question.  Hurricane Sandy was the game changer and what happened around that storm provides, I believe, the “game-changing” opportunity for us. If we don’t seize it fully, I think we will miss one of our best chances to help change the public perception of nonprofits. 

I am the head of the federation of the city’s 38 settlement houses and community centers.  Several of our members are located where the storm hit most severely, and most of our members work in public housing which, even if not in a flood zone, was revealed to have profound needs in this crisis.  I have described the response of our agencies in blogs I’ve written since the storm as nothing short of heroic, and I have not hesitated to use the term “first responders” when describing our agency’s staff members, who biked, hitched and walked to their agencies so they could get to work.

Our agencies – mission-driven nonprofits – did not hesitate to step up to help their local communities, regardless of whether they knew they would be reimbursed for doing so.  It is what they do, it is what distinguishes them from for-profit entitles whose bottom line dictates what actions they take.  For our agencies, it was the needs of their community residents that guided their response, first and foremost, and continuing today, 2 months later.  And because settlement houses are on the ground, community –based, embedded in their neighborhoods, they could be more nimble and flexible and effective than any government bureaucracy could possibly be. Stories abound of how they could send staff and volunteers the next day into public housing projects to find vulnerable people because they already knew where they lived and what they might need.  I genuinely think the first responders label is apt.

And I have to observethat those communities – like Far Rockaway and Coney Island and Red Hook - that lacked a well-developed, experienced, embedded nonprofit infrastructure are those same neighborhoods that are experiencing the slowest recovery and whose residents suffered the most.

There is a terrific article in the January 7th edition of the New Yorker by Eric Klinenberg, an NYU sociology professor, called Adaptation: How can cities be “climate-proofed”.  He quotes President Obama’s assistant secretary for preparedness & response Nicole Lurie:  “there’s a lot of social science research showing how much better people do in disasters, how much longer they live, when they have good social networks and connections”; she says “it was a big evolution in our thinking to be able to put community resilience front and center”.

Further, Klinenberg quotes Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson, who has found that the benefits of living in a neighborhood with a robust social infrastructure are significant during ordinary times as well as during disasters”.   Last, he quotes the head of emergency preparedness for LA:  it’s not just engineering that matters. It’s social capital”  … social infrastructure matters too”.   Klinenberg himself concludes that the best techniques for safeguarding cities don’t just mitigate disaster damage, they also strengthen the networks the promote health and prosperity during ordinary times.  

And who better to promote social networks, optimize social capital and create social infrastructure than community based organizations like ours, and the nonprofit sector as a whole.  It is time for us to make the case in the most explicit and forceful way possible that although our workers don’t wear uniforms, we too are essential first responders, whether during a crisis or every day.  One of the realities of Sandy is that it shone a spotlight on the vulnerable, poor and have-nots of our City, who obviously suffered more than middle class people.  Even the New York Times covered this aspect of the tragedy, in addition of course to covering the Manhattan residents who flushed their toilets with pinot grigio when the power was out.

So this is an opportunity we must seize.  We must keep the everyday crisis that is poverty and homelessness in the public mind and we can do that by continuing to show how nonprofits, day in and out, are working to end the very slow-moving superstorm of poverty. 


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.