Preparing Vulnerable Populations for Crisis: What We’ve Learned and Funding for the Future

By Sister Paulette LoMonaco, Executive Director, Good Shepherd Services

This blog post is adapted from Sister LoMonaco’s remarks during one of the member engagement sessions at Philanthropy New York’s 34th Annual Meeting.

I would like to focus on two perspectives: youth services and youth in communities of high need like Red Hook, Brooklyn, and the special needs of those providing child welfare, mental health and developmentally delayed programs for youth.

In communities like Red Hook, where 75 percent of the population lives in the Red Hook Houses and 47 percent live below the poverty level, there is already an enormous amount of vulnerability. Red Hook suffers from a lack of public transportation, with only two buses running in and out of a community that is surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth by the Gowanus Expressway. It has very diminished services that most New Yorkers take for granted: limited access to doctors and health services, little access to fresh food, only one bank, no movie theater or dry cleaners and a library with limited hours.

Young people in Red Hook (as in other impoverished neighborhoods) are underemployed and often undereducated. They tend to live in public housing, which was unprepared for Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath despite all of their efforts; many of the people that were told to leave had no place to go and so remained on site. The programs that serve them in these neighborhoods are also without resources — every year, programs like the Beacons and afterschool and child care, designed to be the infrastructure that keep vulnerable youth and families safe and engaged, face budget cuts leading to staff layoffs and program uncertainty. Their staff are often part-time, and thus not eligible for medical benefits. One can rightfully say that youth services providers live in a state of perpetual crisis, a perpetual disaster aftermath, as they attempt to address the multi-faceted needs of those they serve with limited resources and very little in the way of extra funds for a rainy day, not to mention a giant superstorm.

Child welfare agencies and those who serve special populations like the mentally ill and developmentally delayed have an additional set of challenges. They must take responsibility for alerting foster families living in storm-sensitive areas and follow them when they relocate. They staff 24-hour group homes and institutions, and have 24-hour responsibility for vulnerable youth and families. They usually work without generators or the ability to travel — which also means that, during Hurricane Sandy, dedicated staff members needed to stay in place, even though many were worried about their own children and homes, and put in non-reimbursed overtime. More importantly, they now must deal with the post-traumatic stress that their program participants face.

We learned some important lessons from Sandy! The first is the tremendous advantage of being community-based and familiar with collaborations. Our Beacon preventive services program already knew families, having visited their homes in the normal course of work, and could quickly identify those who needed assistance. Our afterschool and in-school counseling programs meant that we knew the children and young people and where they lived. In Red Hook, we joined with Red Hook Initiative and a host of volunteers from neighboring Park Slope who cooked hot meals and brought needed clothing, diapers and other toiletries and plenty of mold-removing items…mold continues to be a big issue! Through the Brooklyn Community Foundation, we were the recipients of a $100,000 grant that was distributed primarily to small businesses to enable them to re-open, provide necessary food and get people back to work, with the remainder being utilized to plan and host a large community retreat which will be held in June. Our faithful foundations and corporations as well as our donors enabled us to distribute an additional $100,000 in small grants to needy residents. We quickly moved from being a distribution center to running a FEMA recovery center along with RHI and now have a FEMA grant to do case management. Support from the Mayor’s Fund for NYC enabled our Beacon to host a celebratory dinner when the generators in public housing were available and the local public school opened again. The Mayor’s Fund will also make funds available for some of the uninsured costs that we incurred and has provided support for a community organizer who has been able to pull together the various constituencies who live in Red Hook: the folks in public housing, the undocumented, small business owners and the new and old homesteaders.

Facebook and other social media seemed to be the best way of communicating during the storm and its aftermath. We learned how important it was to have both written and electronic records of all staff phone numbers and cell phones; a system of transportation, including car pools; up-to-date disaster plans and manuals; and clearly designated evacuation centers. Creating a central office or point person to handle government requests is essential; so is a collocated computer system site as well as frequent testing to insure that the systems in place actually work. Storage space off the ground is another essential that, regretfully, we learned about the hard way!

There are countless ways that philanthropy can assist us in preparing for the next storm. Whether in support of youth services or foster care, funders can help with preventive measures such as the purchasing of generators and two-way radio systems, phone/text message systems, and emergency supplies — from lanterns and batteries to food and diapers and, of course, mold removal equipment and first aid kits. And funds for post-disaster trauma-focused counseling are essential.

Having a community organizer in place before the storm would have been an enormous help — we now have one in Red Hook as a result of the Mayor’s Fund, but needless to say, we would love to keep him! Funding these positions for youth-serving programs would be a wonderful asset. You could also encourage youth and child welfare agencies that are not in some of the identified areas to expand their services into them with a pledge of your commitment to support them.

As we know, the communities that seemed to fare best were those who had an infrastructure of strong youth and family agencies in place…so another way that philanthropy can assist us is to advocate, as many of you have been doing, to ensure that local agencies are strong and well-funded. You can also request in your proposal outlines that agencies in the zones that are most likely to be impacted by another superstorm submit their emergency plans. Because most of the work at nonprofits revolves around addressing emergencies, we all have a tendency to put disaster preparedness plans on the bottom of our “to do” list; having your support be contingent on having plans in place will assist us in developing them. For all vulnerable populations, being adequately prepared — and adequately supported — is the best future defense.


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