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A Series of Rallies Outside City Hall

Adult Literacy

 Adult Literacy Rally (Sofie Hecht / Gotham Gazette)

 A variety of activist groups and City Council members gathered outside City Hall on Wednesday morning to call for attention to their respective causes. New legislation was to be introduced at the City Council that afternoon and more budget money was being requested, or demanded, as the city’s new financial plan is due by the end of June and negotiations between the Mayor and the City Council continue.

The weather had finally begun to feel like summer and a series of hot rallies sought recognition from the media and lawmakers, especially Mayor Bill de Blasio, who, along with many City Council members, walked into City Hall throughout the morning. The central government building provided the backdrop for what felt like several attempts at the same scene from a movie - different actors in different clothes holding different signs about different causes, crowds of varying sizes trying to get the feel just right.

But, in reality, these were individuals and groups with very serious purposes, attempting to influence the legislative and budget-making process, with the City Council set to hold one of its two full-bodied meetings of the month in the afternoon, where Council members would introduce new bills and vote on previously considered items. Some Council members participated in the rallies beforehand, others may have taken note as they walked by.

The morning in photographs, with explanation below: 

City Hall Rallies May 25, 2016

Deed Restriction Reform
The day began at 9:15 a.m. with a press conference led by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer and City Council Member Margaret Chin, who announced new legislation being introduced to the Council that would change the city’s deed restriction practices. The move was prompted by the controversial lifting of a deed restriction by the de Blasio administration that is now being investigated by several entities - the “arcane process...surrounding the sale of Rivington House on the Lower East Side,” according to the Brewer/Chin press release. Council Members Mark Levine, Ben Kallos, and Vincent Gentile voiced their support at the press conference. Increased transparency and oversight are at the center of the reforms being proposed.

Parks Funding
Following the deed restriction press conference, about 25 people gathered on the steps of City Hall to rally for increased funding for parks and green spaces. City Council Parks Committee Chair Mark Levine, New Yorkers for Parks, the New York League of Conservation Voters, and others participated. Sporting signs with the hashtag #pitchin4parks or slogans like “Flowers Not Towers,” the group of gardeners, park enthusiasts, park workers, and advocates made their budget requests clear. Levine has been pushing his Council colleagues and the de Blasio administration for more parks funding before the budget deal is reached.

Library Funding
An even larger and more colorful group came out at 11 a.m. to lobby for funding for libraries. Library workers and supporters of the cause clad in bright orange or green t-shirts stood on the steps behind the speakers. City Council Members Brad Lander, Mark Levine, and Jimmy Van Bramer were among those who voiced their support for a $22 million increase in operating funding and $100 million of capital funding to New York City Public Libraries for restoring and maintaining the buildings. “Public libraries offer New Yorkers opportunities to strengthen themselves and their communities,” New York Public Library President Tony Marx said in a press release, expressing the same sentiment at the rally. Council Member Van Bramer, chair of the Council’s cultural affairs committee, echoed Marx, saying, “Libraries are our lifeblood.”

Adult Literacy Funding
“What do we want?” “Education!” “When do we want it? “Now!”

Approximately 1000 people gathered outside City Hall’s gates around noon on Wednesday, rallying for increased funding for adult literacy. They could be heard blocks away passionately calling for an end to cuts to High School Equivalency (HSE) and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Seven hundred students from over 15 different adult literacy programs attended the rally, according to organizers, calling on Mayor de Blasio to invest $16 million in adult literacy programs this fiscal year so that their programs and education can continue.

Myra Less shared her family’s story, one very similar to many students and attendees of the Wednesday event. Less moved to New York from Ecuador when she was 21 and struggled to find work or enroll in college because she couldn’t speak English. She learned English from newspapers, TV, music, and “practice and practice and practice,” she explained. But others aren’t as lucky as her, she noted. Her mother’s English classes at an organization on her corner stopped because of funding cuts. “My mom wants to help [my sister] with her homework and she can’t because she’s still struggling with her English,” she said.

More than 6,000 adult literacy classroom seats were cut for fiscal year 2015. Of 2.2 million adults in need of either HSE or ESL classes, state, federal and city funding only provides services for 61,000 people, less than 3% of the need, according to UJA-Federation employee Sasha Kesler.

“You guys drive New York City,” Kevin Douglass of United Neighborhood Houses said to the crowd of students and advocates, “We need adult literacy.”

Budget Crunch Time
As negotiations enter their final stages, expect more rallies outside City Hall as advocates and legislators look to push for more funding for their causes. A budget deal is due by the July 1 start of the new fiscal year, but many expect it to be completed sooner. Stay tuned!

by Sofie Hecht, Gotham Gazette

Push Continues for Budget Boost to City Contracted Nonprofits

hsc rally city hall

The Human Services Council and City Council Members rally at City Hall

On a hot and sunny day, dozens of nonprofit workers took to the steps of City Hall to call on Mayor Bill de Blasio to fund a 2.5 percent increase for the administrative costs of nonprofits that contract with the city. Forty-seven of 51 City Council members have signed on to a letter to de Blasio asking him to baseline the increase, an additional $25 million annually, into the budget as the city moves toward adopting a new spending plan. A budget deal between de Blasio and the Council is due by the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

As nonprofits and their employees have strained under increasing costs for space, staff, and programming, sector leaders, workers, and legislators are pointing to what they say are flaws in how the city budgets funding for vital services.

The human services nonprofits requesting more funding from the city provide a wide range of services to the city’s most vulnerable, including foster care, homelessness services, mental health care, immigrant services, early childhood literacy and after-school programs, home-care for the elderly, and more.

The city is required to provide many of these support services, but contracts them out to nonprofits to save money and increase efficiency. However, many of these nonprofits are on the brink of insolvency and are borrowing from banks to meet payroll and provide services due in part to decades of underfunding from federal, state, and city government.

“I’ve had to make some really hard decisions in this past year,” said Marla Simpson, executive director of Brooklyn Community Services. “I can think of two programs that are very well run and much needed in our communities where we have had to choose to not fill vacant positions because we cannot afford to put the staff in that position and also pay the rent or the insurance bill.”

The increase in “other than personnel funding” that nearly the entire City Council and a coalition of human services nonprofits - including the Human Services Council, the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, the New York Immigration Coalition, Urban Pathways, and the Center Against Domestic Violence - are asking for would help city contracted nonprofits to afford staff development, rent, repairs, equipment, and technology. (City Council Members who did not sign the letter to de Blasio were Finance Chair Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, Dan Garodnick and David Greenfield)

These nonprofits are “consistently paid 80 cents for every dollar of work,” said chair of the Contracts Committee Helen Rosenthal, who spearheaded the letter to the mayor, referring to the fact that although government contracts account for the majority of nonprofits’ budgets, they pay roughly 80 cents or less of each dollar of true program delivery costs. “Human services providers need funding…in order to effectively serve the at least 2.5 million New Yorkers in their care,” Rosenthal added.

The de Blasio administration has taken steps to improve conditions for workers in the human services nonprofit sector, which employs over 200,000 New Yorkers, a majority of whom are women (four out of every five workers). In May of last year, de Blasio included a 2.5 percent cost of living adjustment increase for some of the city’s human services providers, and this January, announced a $15 minimum wage for all workers contracted by the city.

Yet more needs to be done, Council members and advocates say, to meet the demands of a sector whose workers are increasingly in need of the types of safety net programs (like Medicaid and food stamps) that they help to provide for others. The extra $25 million in funding is a relatively small ask in terms of the city’s overall $82.2 billion executive budget, said some present at Thursday’s rally.

“The city relies on nonprofit human services providers to deliver essential services on their behalf, but government contracts continually fail to cover the full cost of programs and payment is often late and unpredictable,” said Allison Sesso, executive director of the Human Services Council. “This chronic underfunding prevents nonprofits from being able to make important investments in things like technology, building maintenance, and employee training, which compromises the quality of important programs and services on which countless individuals and families depend.”

Thursday’s rally and the letter to the mayor come after two oversight hearings on contracts in the past year, one of which was prompted by the release of a report from the Human Services Council that painted the picture of a sector in crisis: underfunded contracts with the city create budget gaps and diminish the quality of services nonprofits can provide, and contract payment is chronically late, forcing providers to turn to costly borrowing to meet their organization’s needs, often accruing interest that is not covered by government contracts.

“If the city wants to build a bridge, if the city wants to build infrastructure, the city puts money in the budget into that. And if costs go over, we put more money in the budget to do that. That’s what we do for infrastructure in this city, and that’s what we have to start doing for our human services contracts,” Rosenthal said at the rally.

“If costs go over, we have to put more money in the budget,” Rosenthal concluded, returning to a comparison she made during the last contracts oversight hearing about the fact that many human services nonprofits are told to seek grants and other funding methods to account for the expenses that their government-funded contracts do not cover. At the time, Rosenthal pointed out that the city would never hire a construction company to build a $40 million bridge, then say to the construction company, “‘We’re going to pay you $35 million. Try to get philanthropy, foundations, or other jobs that you do to pay for the remaining $5 million.’”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@megoconnor13     @GothamGazette

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Council to Hear Bills on Providing Tampons at Shelters, Prisons & Schools

Gibson Ferreras-Copeland Mark-Viverito hearing

Council Members Gibson, Ferreras-Copeland, Mark-Viverito (l-r) (photo: William Alatriste)

The City Council is about to take the next step toward making feminine hygiene products readily available, and free, in New York City public schools, shelters, and correctional facilities. On Thursday, June 2, the Council’s Committee on Women’s Issues will hold its first hearing on a package of bills to improve access to tampons and pads after the legislation was introduced in March.

The three bills are being spearheaded by City Council Member Julissa Ferreras-Copeland and Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, the lead sponsors, and the hearing will come as New York State is set to eliminate the so-called “tampon tax” - the sales tax on feminine hygiene products.

Representatives from the city agencies that would carry out the new mandates outlined in the bills and relevant advocacy groups have been asked to testify - leaders from the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the Department of Education, and the Department of Correction will attend the hearing, as will representatives from ZanaAfrica Foundation, UnTabooed, and PowerPlay NYC. Representatives from the Women’s Prison Association, Care for the Homeless, the YMCA, and other groups that participated in a roundtable discussion about access to menstrual products with Ferreras-Copeland last summer may be present as well.

Women who filed a class action lawsuit against the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance to end the tax on menstrual productsand Jennifer Weiss-Wolf, a leading national and international voice calling for better access to menstrual products, have also been invited to testify.

During the hearing, questions about the logistics and costs of implementing the mandates will be addressed. According to her office, Ferreras-Copeland looks forward to hearing from the de Blasio administration about its views on the bills and the current policies of the relevant agencies in terms of access to menstrual products. Ferreras-Copeland, who is likely to lead the hearing with Mark-Viverito and Council Member Laurie Cumbo, chair of the women’s issues committee, is also looking to hear what barriers there may be in implementation of the requirements in the bills.

It is not yet clear how tampons and pads will be provided to women and girls in city shelters, jails, and schools, though no-charge dispensers have already been installed in the girls’ bathrooms of 25 middle schools and high schools in the city through a pilot program, and Ferreras-Copeland has previously mentioned the possibility of installing dispensers in shelters.

The three bills in the package are accompanied by a resolution, sponsored by Council Member Ydanis Rodriguez, calling on the state to exempt feminine hygiene products from all state and local sales taxes, which the state is poised to do - on Wednesday, state lawmakers passed a bill to exempt feminine hygiene products from the tax on retail sales, prompting Governor Andrew Cuomo to release a statement saying, “I look forward to signing it into law.”

The Council bills and the elimination of New York’s “tampon tax” contribute to a growing movement to de-stigmatize menstruation and improve gender equity, as women end up paying hundreds of dollars in taxes buying tampons and pads throughout their lifetime, despite the fact that women cannot avoid buying the products. Fourteen states and three major cities have introduced legislation to eliminate the tax on feminine hygiene products since January, though few cities or states have taken action to make the products more freely available.

The city push to make feminine hygiene products freely available to the city’s most vulnerable women - students and those in prisons and shelters - is meant to correct the disparity that when men walk into a bathroom, they are provided with everything they need to take care of their normal bodily functions while women are not. While some have questioned the price tag involved, Ferreras-Copeland has said time and again, “I’ve never heard anybody complaining about how much it costs to buy toilet paper.”

One bill, introduced by Ferreras-Copeland, would require all schools to make feminine hygiene products readily available to students and would require DOHMH to provide schools with a supply of tampons and pads that is adequate to meet the needs of the student body.

In September 2015, Ferreras-Copeland and the High School for Arts and Business in Queens launched a pilot program of free tampons and pads by installing a free dispenser in the girls’ bathroom. In March, Ferreras-Copeland and the DOE expanded that program to 25 middle and high schools in Queens and the Bronx, providing access to free tampons and pads to the 11,600 girls attending the schools in the program.The principal at Arts and Business attributes a 2.4 percent increase in attendance rates in the months after the dispenser was installed to tampons and pads being freely available. Previously, when girls got their period and weren’t carrying tampons or pads, they often had to miss class time and go to the nurse’s office in order to get what they need.

Ferreras-Copeland says the DOE has been receptive and that conversations with schools Chancellor Carmen Fariña have been productive, although the cost of freely providing menstrual products was initially raised as a concern.

Another bill, introduced by Speaker Mark-Viverito, would require DOHMH to provide feminine hygiene products to all female residents in temporary shelters (here meaning Department of Homeless Services family shelters and single adult women shelters, Department of Youth and Community Development shelters, and Human Resources Administration domestic violence shelters).

Tampons and pads are often in short supply in the city’s shelters, where women are already often unable to purchase the products. SNAP, WIC, and flexible spending accounts cannot be used to buy tampons or pads. Congressional Rep. Grace Meng of Queens has introduced a bill that would reclassify feminine hygiene products so that they can be purchased with flexible spending accounts.

The third bill, also introduced by Mark-Viverito, would require the Department of Correction to provide inmates with feminine hygiene products immediately upon request, “unless so providing would be unsafe, in which case products would be required as soon as possible.” This would be a slight, but potentially significant change to the current DOC policy, as it would allow women a form of recourse if their requests are denied. Currently, additional supplies are available upon request, but inmates allege that their requests are sometimes denied by correction officers for no legitimate reason or because those products are understocked in jails, forcing women to ration pads.

Under DOC’s current policy, each housing unit of female inmates in Rikers’ Rose M. Singer Center is given a box of 144 sanitary napkins each week (housing units hold up to fifty women, meaning each woman may get two to three pads a week - pads that are small and thin), according to an August, 2015 letter from DOC Commissioner Joseph Ponte to Mark-Viverito and Ferreas-Copeland and shared with Gotham Gazette. Ponte said in the letter that he had “not heard of any issues or complaints regarding access to these items.”

Others say that’s not the case. During a roundtable discussion on access to feminine hygiene products last summer, Ferreras-Copeland said she heard from representatives of the Women’s Prison Association that “some women were reduced to using one pad for their whole cycle” and stories from women who have had “to show soiled pads before they get the new ones,” both of which are harmful to a woman’s menstrual health and dignity.

In an April interview, Ferreras-Copeland said her original idea was to have coin-free dispensers installed in women’s prisons as well, but “there was fear that the actual vending machine could be used as a weapon,” and so that option was scrapped.One county in Wisconsin approved a resolution last year authorizing Dane County to begin a pilot program to provide tampons and pads for free via coin-free dispensers in the restrooms of eight county buildings, including a correctional facility. Ferreras-Copeland added that she did not want to legislate the number of pads the DOC must provide to women because “who am I to say how many they need, I just want to make sure that they have enough.”

On Wednesday, Ferreras-Copeland expressed excitement about the upcoming hearing to Gotham Gazette, but was not available for a follow-up interview.

Weiss-Wolf said in a statement that she is looking forward to testifying next week. “The bills’ sponsors...and others,” she wrote, “have taken an important step by acknowledging that the ability to access and afford menstrual products is a necessity for half the population, and that it is impossible to be an engaged student or productive citizen without these products.”

by Meg O'Connor, Gotham Gazette
@megoconnor13     @GothamGazette

Read more by this writer.

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