Can you talk about the challenges to your staff?
We have a workforce of about 700 people, and this is a precarious time for all of us who work at WIN. The staff is concerned about their own health and the health of their families, and we’re asking them to do more than ever: coordinate food deliveries, figure out a way to support our clients without direct contact. Some of the staff are dealing with the added stress of having family members laid off.
I hope that we come out of this crisis with an appreciation for the people who have to go to work every day. In our shelters that’s the security guards, the case managers, the rec workers, the social workers—they have to be hands-on in a shelter. Sometimes we forget that doctors and nurses and shelter workers and other frontline people are not robots—they are people with families who take care of their kids and their parents. That’s a big part of this that we don’t want people to forget.
What can people do to help—should they be making care packages to be delivered to shelter rooms?
The first, and obvious thing is to make a donation—a dollar, five dollars. It all adds up and is making a difference. The second thing is to follow us online and amplify our message. We are trying to provide social services in the midst of a pandemic, but we also need to be advocates, and we need support in this. If people want to send specific items, we are working on a list. But honestly, it’s better for us to order in bulk to minimize the shipping costs and challenges.
Can you talk a little more about the clients you serve?
Prior to the pandemic, New York City was at an all time high in the number of homeless. I’ve tried to emphasize that 70 percent of the people in shelters are part of a family with children. Twenty-five percent of the people in shelters are 6 years old or younger. This is not to take away from the needs of single people, but you need to know the real picture to deal with your resources and to develop the right policies. Fifty-three percent of the mothers we serve are working or obtain work after they’ve been with us for a while. This concept that people are lazy or drug addicts couldn’t be farther from the truth. People disregard the reality of the shelter population because the idea of a child spending a quarter of her life in a shelter is so upsetting and disturbing. We need to stop leaving these people behind.
The state government in California has been looking to move the homeless into hotels and trailers. What do you think of this plan? Could this work in New York?
Thee physical structures need to be safe and appropriate. If they are for families, they need to have private bathrooms and a private cooking area. If they’re for kids, they need to have open spaces or a rec room or something similar. The word “temporary” with the government can mean “permanent” so we need to think about that. And what services will be provided? In New York hotels, there isn’t great attention paid to the physical safety of the guests. Many of the mothers living at WIN have experienced domestic violence. How will the “temporary” spaces set up protections for these mothers? In a Staten Island hotel that was being used by the city to house the homeless, a woman was killed by her abuser. How do we prevent that kind of thing from happening?