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Council to Assess Hunger Problem, City Efforts to Reduce It


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Mayor de Blasio serving food (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayoral Photography Office)


The City Council’s Committee on General Welfare will hold an oversight hearing on hunger in New York City on Wednesday morning at City Hall.

Council Member Stephen Levin, the chair of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette he and his colleagues want to get a broad assessment of hunger in the city, as well as specifics related to de Blasio administration efforts to mitigate the problem, which is the result, in large part, of high poverty rates.

At the hearing, Levin added, the committee would review increasing and decreasing barriers to the federally funded Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (otherwise known as SNAP or “food stamps”), SNAP enrollment, the status of food pantries, state hunger programs, and other components.

“We want to hear what initiatives this administration is taking,” Levin said. “We’re eager to hear what recommendations they’re able to put forward and hear...what they’re working on.”

Under Commissioner Steven Banks, Mayor de Blasio’s Human Resources Administration (HRA) has increased SNAP access, eased work requirements for agency clients, and enacted several other reforms. De Blasio also expanded the “breakfast after the bell” program for all public elementary schools, which advocates praised while recommending universal free school lunch.

Still, hunger remains a harsh reality for many New Yorkers.

As of last November, HRA was providing nutritional assistance to 1,686,941 New Yorkers, 45,406 fewer than a year before. In addition to the food stamps, one in five New Yorkers are assisted by the Food Bank of New York City, the major hunger relief organization that receives funding from the city, which reported in a recent survey of its agencies “that they had run out of food, or particular types of food, needed to make adequate meals or pantry bags” last September.

Continuing a decline that began under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, SNAP participation in the city has gone down under de Blasio. According to New York City Coalition Against Hunger executive director Joel Berg, a main cause of the decline is federal divestment of half a billion dollars in New York City SNAP funds.

“The amount of the benefits decreased and the caseloads decreased,” said Berg, who estimates that about 500,000 New Yorkers are eligible for nutritional assistance but don't receive it. “And so, there’s no question that lower benefit levels do also reduce participation.”

Lisa Levy, Coalition Against Hunger’s director of policy, advocacy and organizing, will testify at Wednesday’s hearing on behalf of the organization, Berg said.

Because SNAP is federally funded, the City Council is limited in actions it can take on nutritional assistance policy. “We have been investing more resources in food pantries through the Food Bank of New York City,” Council Member Ritchie Torres, a member of the general welfare committee, told Gotham Gazette. “But as with many issues, we are hamstrung by a Congress in Washington that is disinvesting, ever more deeply, in the city.”

Though New York City’s employment has recovered from the recession, Berg insists that this has not translated to reduced hunger. “The lines of pantries and kitchens are still as long as ever,” he said.

According to research from Coalition Against Hunger, many food insecure New Yorkers do indeed work. The group found that between 2012-2014, 48 percent of food insecure New Yorkers between the ages of 15 and 65 worked. While significant minimum wage raises being pushed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, and others would likely reduce that number if enacted, there could be an unintended consequence of the wage hike for New Yorkers receiving nutritional assistance.

Berg, while praising the wage hikes, does worry that, “In some cases, particularly with single people, the amount of SNAP benefits they lose could exceed the value of the wage increase,” said Berg, who has advocated for raising the income level needed to receive food stamps to expand eligibility.

Council Member Levin indicated that he would look into the wage hike issue. “It’s hard to kind of predict, and I think you’d have to kind of drill down on the individual case and really that individual and that family’s situation,” he said. “But certainly, it’s something that we should be asking about.”

***
by Ryan Brady, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette

Note: this article has been updated.

Sexual Assault Becomes Focus of Public Discussion


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Council Member Cumbo (photo: William Alatriste)


Even before a horrific rape incident became the focus of news reports and statements from elected officials over the weekend, lawmakers and advocates planned to rally Monday morning at City Hall to call for new measures to protect women from violent assault.

While major felonies dropped overall in New York City in 2015, there were more rapes reported than the year before. There have also been alarming reports of rape connected to women riding in cabs and other for-hire vehicles. In discussing crime data on WNYC radio, NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said on Tuesday of last week that there had been an increase in assaults on women taking cabs late at night and that women should use "the buddy system."

Bratton's statement was met with quick criticism, including by some who said he was victim-blaming. City Council Member Laurie Cumbo, who chairs the Council's women's issues committee, renewed calls for legislation and additional resources toward preventing rape and other violence against women. Cumbo, who previously sponsored a bill calling for a "panic button" in all cabs and for-hire vehicles, will lead the rally Monday morning to push her bill and call for other measures.

There were 1,439 rapes reported in New York City last year, a six percent increase from the year before, when 1,354 were reported in 2014. Meanwhile, the NYPD said that 14 of the 166 rapes committed by a stranger to the victim were committed in incidents related to taxi or other for-hire vehicle rides.

Over the weekend, reports surfaced of an incident that had occurred Thursday evening in Brownsville, where five young men are alleged to have gang-raped a young woman at gunpoint, after having threatened her father and instructing him to leave.

Mayor Bill de Blasio was among several elected officials who released statements Sunday expressing outrage over the incident. The mayor promised to pursue the perpetrators of the rape and that his administration will "work to ensure a crime of this nature never happens again."

Council Member Cumbo released a statement pointing to the increase in rape and calling for action. She also connected the incident to Bratton's 'buddy system' comment, calling the remarks "an insult to women."

"I am outraged and every single New Yorker regardless of race, religion, or gender should be outraged by what has happened not only to this young woman - but to all of us, because right now women in New York City are more vulnerable than ever," Cumbo wrote. "To add insult to injury, NYPD Commissioner Bratton's response to the escalation of violence against women in cabs was for women to utilize the 'Buddy System.'

"If a father cannot protect his own daughter in this day and age then it is obvious that the so called "buddy system" is sexist, antiquated and an insult to women throughout New York City," Cumbo continued. "We do not need a buddy system. Every woman in New York City has the right to feel safe and protected at all times within the greatest City in the world. What we need is a strategy, resources, manpower, enforcement and a plan to keep every single woman in the City of New York safe."

There have been questions raised about the speed with which the father of the Brownsville victim was able to locate help and with which the NYPD responded and notified the public. The NYPD released a statement to the press Sunday evening saying there had been "no delay in responding to the rape in the 73 Precinct." By Sunday evening, four male suspects were in custody, according to the NYPD.

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, himself a longtime member of the NYPD, said in a statement that he was "sickened" by the reports of the Brownsville rape and said, "I do not accept a city where reports of rape and sexual assault are on the rise. We must be proactively aggressive to keep women safe, including better lighting and design of public spaces like Osborn Playground," where the Thursday incident occurred.

Cumbo's bill, introduced in April, "would require all taxicabs, hail vehicles, liveries, black cars, and luxury limousines to have a panic button installed that would allow a passenger to send a distress signal to law enforcement," according to her office.

The rally set for City Hall at 10 a.m. Monday will command additional attention given what occurred in Brownsville on Thursday. It is unclear what other public policy ralliers may call for other than passage of Cumbo's bill, which currently has ten sponsors in the 51-member City Council. Additional lighting in parks and funding of groups that work to prevent domestic violence and sexual assault may be part the discussion.

A notice from Cumbo's office said that participating organizations would include National Organization for Women of New York City, New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault, Committee for Taxi Safety Advocates, and CONNECT, an organization working to end domestic violence.

***
by Ben Max, Gotham Gazette
@tweetBenMax

To Meet Staten Island Needs, Borough President Focuses on Beating Bureaucracy


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SIBP Oddo, right, & Maria Torres-Springer of the de Blasio admin (photo from Oddo's Twitter) 


Staten Island has the highest rate of homeownership of any city borough, residents largely use cars to get around, since mass transit options are severely lacking, and despite being the city’s third largest borough in terms of square miles, Staten Island is home to just under 500,000 out of more than 8 million New Yorkers. There are a unique set of concerns on Staten Island, to say the least of the often strained relationship between the borough and City Hall.

Staten Island Borough President James Oddo and the borough’s other elected representatives often feel as though they have to scratch and claw to get their constituents due attention and resources. While Mayor Bill de Blasio has been paying more attention to Staten Island than some may have expected considering it was the only borough he lost in his 2013 election, there is still a sense among many Islanders that the administration does not pay enough mind to their concerns.

In sending out an end-of-year message and in a subsequent interview, Oddo indicated the special circumstances of his borough, described an ongoing battle with “the bureaucracy,” and outlined the needs of Staten Islanders, progress made in 2015, and what to expect in 2016.

“For far too much of the last two years my staff and I have engaged in a full-fledged steel cage match with the bureaucracy, attempting to get City government to bring long planned projects to fruition,” Oddo said in an end-of-year message. “We have fought so that Borough Hall’s new visions and initiatives might take root, and wrestled with city agencies to work in conjunction with us to efficiently and effectively resolve the daily quality of life issues facing Staten Islanders.”

That “steel cage match” does not involve the mayor, Oddo explained in an interview with Gotham Gazette, but rather “middle managers or bureaucrats - folks that hold onto the status quo like grim death…deputy commissioner-level folks who have been in those city agencies” long before Mayor de Blasio or Oddo were elected to their current positions (the two were City Council colleagues at one point).

“I’m very pleased with the level of communication I have with the mayor himself, and with the deputy mayors. I think the frustration I’ve felt in the last two years is referring to individual agencies,” Oddo clarified, adding that he finds it “curious that there have been many instances over the last two years where it's been borough hall and the mayor's office versus their own agencies.”

Oddo has been particularly consumed with Sandy recovery, health and wellness, transit options, and road repaving.

To the borough president and his constituents, Staten Island’s lack of mass transit options and related severe traffic congestion are pressing issues that have a big impact on residents’ day-to-day lives, adding hours to their daily commutes. Yet that sense of urgency is not shared by some officials within city agencies, Oddo says, and as a result, issues go unresolved for long periods of time.

“I get the sense that for some long-standing agency officials, whether the project is completed in fiscal year ’19 or fiscal year ’29, it really doesn’t matter to them,” Oddo said.

The biggest issue to tackle in 2016, Oddo explained, is getting the city to help figure out a way to improve the commute on Staten Island. Staten Islanders spend more time and money on their commutes than the average New Yorker: Staten Island to Manhattan via express bus costs commuters about $57 each week, and while ferry service (the only other mass transit option that connects Staten Island to Manhattan) is free, the boat ride takes almost half an hour, and getting to the ferry can take between ten minutes and an hour-and-a-half for those relying on mass transit.

There is only one train on Staten Island, and that train runs exclusively along the east side of the borough, leaving a majority of those who need to use mass transit to get around Staten Island stuck waiting for the notoriously unreliable buses.

The initial draft report of the MTA’s comprehensive study of all existing bus routes on Staten Island (some of which were designed 40 or 50 years ago) should be received in 2016, Oddo said, and while “no one has any delusions that the MTA is going to come in with this unending source of capital money, we believe we can restructure these routes and find a great deal of efficiency. I really expect some improvements. That’ll be big in 2016.”

Oddo said that he hopes to “improve to some degree the commutes that are worsening by the day. It’s literally robbing hours of your life - it’s two to four hours on top of your workday.”

Though 2015 has seen progress toward improving Staten Island’s current mass transit options, with movement on the MTA study and Mayor de Blasio investing nearly $5 million a year to ensure the ferry runs every half-hour 24-hours a day, progress toward providing Staten Islanders with more transit options has been less than ideal.

“I’m not so happy with the progress that has not been made with the fast ferry,” Oddo said, referring to a new ferry program he’s advocated for. “We still have lots of work to do to make it a reality.”

Ideally, a fast ferry service would run from transit-starved areas of the borough which are far from the island’s existing north shore ferry location to areas with docks for ferries in Manhattan or Brooklyn.

Mayor de Blasio did put forward a fast ferry plan last year, and funding from the city has been set, but the plan adds just one fast ferry location to the island, in Stapleton - a mere six minute drive away from the existing ferry terminal in Saint George.

In 2015, Oddo got a fast ferry service to conduct test runs from more remote locations on Staten Island, like Prince’s Bay, to lower Manhattan and midtown in an effort to prove the service would be a viable option for such locations.

The ferry from Prince’s Bay (which is at least a 45-minute bus/train ride away from the Staten Island ferry terminal) to lower Manhattan took 47 minutes during Oddo’s test runs.

Though the Stapleton fast ferry is arguably not what Staten Islanders looking to save time on their commutes need, given the city’s plans for economic development in the Bay Street Corridor/Stapleton area, the fast ferry could be helpful in the future, Oddo told the Staten Island Advance last year.

“There’s more to be done, and we’re going to keep working on expanding options,” Mayor de Blasio said when asked about the lack of mass transit options on Staten Island during a Jan. 4 press conference to promote the city’s new commuter benefits law.

While improving the commute for Staten Island residents is something Oddo says still “needs the city’s help in advancing,” the borough president says he is “happy with some of the progress that we’ve made with our health and wellness program, the tech hub [that will be created on Staten Island’s North Shore], and the “Too Good for Drugs” program that the mayor came out to announce.”

Oddo said out of all the initiatives that progressed in 2015, he is most proud of “Too Good for Drugs,” as Staten Island’s “epidemic in terms of opioid abuse” is a matter of “life and death.”

The educational anti-drug program for students, which started last year in fifth-grade classrooms in five Staten Island schools, “came out of Borough Hall, we’re very proud of it, and the feedback has been fantastic,” Oddo said.

“The folks at City Hall believe in it and it's one of several fronts that we need” to reduce substance abuse and drug overdose deaths, he added. Oddo said treatment programs are also needed, but preventing substance abuse by teaching “the notion of making smart decisions at as early as an age as possible” is seen as an important first step by Oddo.

Expanding “Too Good for Drugs” is one of the items on Oddo’s agenda for 2016, with the program set to expand to 47 schools after receiving $70,000 in the city budget.

Mayor de Blasio and his administration have made an effort to show City Hall remembers the “forgotten borough.” The mayor made several trips to Staten Island in 2015: he vowed to complete all repairs and construction still needed for Staten Island residents whose homes were ruined by Hurricane Sandy by 2016; he broke ground on Staten Island’s first Family Justice Center for domestic violence prevention and response; and announced his administration’s comprehensive effort to reduce opioid misuse and overdose deaths, among others.

“There will be a lot of town halls in 2016, including Staten Island,” de Blasio said during the Jan. 4 press conference when asked about doing a Q&A session on the island.

Besides continuing to fight that “steel cage match with the bureaucracy” to make the commute better for Staten Islanders and repaving the borough’s roads, 2016 will also “bring a new economic development campaign to entice businesses who are being priced out of other boroughs to think of Staten Island instead of New Jersey,” according to Oddo’s year-end message.

Oddo did not get into specifics in terms of his thinking about the ongoing development of the New York Wheel or the accompanying Empire Outlets expected to be constructed near the ferry terminal within the next few years as he spoke about different aspects of economic development, and had a clear focus on quality of life issues.

Other initiatives, he said, include “a new program to match Staten Island high school students with mentors in their areas of interest, and out-of-the-box ideas to help tackle North Shore traffic issues.”

***
by Meg O’Connor, Gotham Gazette
@GothamGazette, @MegOConnor13



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