Gotham Gazette

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New York City Must Act Immediately to Strengthen Our Nonprofit Social Safety Net

social services food pantries

Amid coronavirus outbreak, the social safety net must hold (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

Daily home-delivered meals for home-bound seniors. Case-management to help make sure people have medicine and essential supplies, and reduce the harm of social isolation. Emergency food for people who are unemployed or homeless. Child care for those who still have to go to work.

All services we utterly need right now. And all provided by New York City’s remarkable network of not-for-profit human service providers.

These providers are essential to our city, as Mayor de Blasio recognized Tuesday when he declared about 40,000 nonprofit human services workers as "essential city employees," so they can receive child care as part of the emergency system the Department of Education and other city agencies are setting up to start next week.

Unfortunately, the City is not yet enabling these human service not-for-profits to step up to meet current crisis-time needs. With rapid action by City Hall, these safety net organizations can become an essential and creative part of our emergency response to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Without rapid action, they will become part of the crisis, as their employees swell the ranks of the unemployed.

Here’s what the City needs to do right away:

Don’t let the safety net fail
Commit to continue to pay the existing contracts of not-for-profit social service agencies through the end of the fiscal year (June 30), whether or not every service continues during the crisis, and stop recouping cash advances that were provided.

Advance bridge loans to cover cash flow. The City’s Department of Small Business Services deserves credit for rapidly establishing an emergency loan fund for small businesses, but it does not include these larger not-for-profit human service organizations.

This will allow the not-for-profits to continue what work they can, like meal delivery, grab-and-go soup kitchens and food pantries, and case management by phone. And it will also prevent thousands of social service workers from losing their income, even if the after-school youth program or senior center they usually work at is closed.

We’ve already allocated the funds for this work, so there’s no need for the workers who provide it to apply for already-strapped unemployment benefits. We’re going to need many of these people for other tasks. And even for those who stay home, whether because of their own or others’ health, this is a low-income workforce. Losing weeks of pay means they can’t pay for rent, food, and medicine.

Clarify what’s essential
The City needs to provide guidance on the essential services these organizations should provide. Existing programs to deliver meals to seniors are a no-brainer. These services should be expanded to include seniors who usually go to a senior center, and to other low-income households that can’t get food right now.

Not-for-profit child care centers need guidance too. They should either be looped into the enrichment center network that the Department of Education is creating, with the guidance and materials needed to do it, or instructed to close.

We’re going to need to continue to provide food pantry and grab-and-go soup kitchens, since we still have thousands of homeless New Yorkers living on the streets. And sadly, the ranks of people without enough food is going to grow as workers are laid off or put on unpaid leave from hurting or closed businesses.

Encourage thoughtful creativity
Over the next few weeks, we’re going to need massive amounts of creativity to meet rapidly-evolving needs. As our hospitals become overwhelmed, we will need an expanded healthcare support workforce. As social isolation sets in, we’ll need a new system of support to help vulnerable seniors (and all of us).

Our human service not-for-profit organizations can act quickly to fill these gaps, as they did after Hurricane Sandy. My office is already working with Heights and Hills (an organization serving older adults in Brooklyn) to get volunteers calling hundreds of home-bound seniors on their lists to see how we can help them. This kind of work can be expanded to help fill in the gaps in our safety net, as best we can under these emergency circumstances.

Let’s empower and encourage New York City’s not-for-profit organizations to be creative and flexible in the anxious days ahead.

Finally, in addition to contract commitments, clear guidance, and flexibility, our not-for-profit organizations need a clear point-of-contact in the City administration, a “not-for-profit czar,” with access to senior leadership and the ability to make decisions. They should convene daily calls with human service leaders to help stand up the emergency networks we need. Crisis leadership that is clear, flexible, and inspiring can help unlock an enormous amount of good.

The COVID-19 crisis is exposing massive gaps in our social safety net. But we are blessed with a creative and resilient network of human service providers, in every neighborhood of the city, that can step up to the challenge at this urgent moment. Let’s not let it fail.

Brad Lander is a New York City Council Member from Brooklyn, and the former executive director of the Fifth Avenue Committee, a not-for-profit affordable housing and community development not-for-profit organization. On Twitter @BradLander.

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