Today, with the current state of economic peril, homelessness is hitting Americans just like you and me—people who never thought they’d be without dual incomes, two cars, vacation savings and a 401(k), let alone a roof over their heads.
Now, perhaps more than ever, we need to give our full attention to the state of homelessness in this great country of ours and to our brothers and sisters in arms, who, recently or not so recently, fell on dark days, for whatever reasons. Sometimes, most times, when the maelstrom has knocked you down, it’s difficult to get up without a little help.
Here, THE FAMILY GROOVE talks to Maria Cuomo Cole, chair of HELP USA, an organization that’s helped more than 220,000 people get back up on their feet since 1986, about the past, present and future of homelessness and what it takes to make history once and for all.
THE FAMILY GROOVE: What is the HELP USA mission?
MARIA CUOMO COLE: HELP USA is one of the nation’s largest providers of homes, jobs and services for America’s homeless and low-income-earning families. More than 220,000 men, women and children have been served by HELP USA since 1986. Believing that more than bricks and mortar are necessary to rebuild people’s lives, in addition to building clean, safe and affordable housing, HELP USA invests in the future of its clients by providing vital human services needed to address the underlying causes of homelessness. HELP USA provides a wide range of services, including employment readiness and job placement, as well as two key programs, Mentoring USA and Street Soccer USA.
TFG: The organization was founded in 1986 at the height of the Reagan era when homelessness in America escalated at an alarming rate. How has the situation improved or changed over the past 23 years?
MCC: One of the big things that happened, particularly in NYC, is that the Department of Homeless Services privatized the shelters, so now the majority are operated by not-for-profit organizations, which increases accountability and the quality of services across the board. Another major initiative that has happened in recent years is the focus on rapid rehousing, which encourages moving families and individuals into permanent housing more quickly. The focus is now on housing first and foremost, then wrapping services around the clients once they’re housed, instead of while they’re in a temporary shelter, which was formerly the model that was used. Finally, nonprofit and for-profit companies are engaged in partnerships around the development of affordable housing more now than ever before.
TFG: HELP USA has helped more than 220,000 since its inception. Why do you think the organization has been so successful?
MCC: HELP USA’s success comes from the social enterprise model at its very core. The organization was built on the idea that investment in disadvantaged people and impoverished populations would reap returns for society in the long run. HELP USA’s programs have lived up to this central tenet by providing job training in maintenance, security and the culinary arts to its residents, in addition to lending services for specific groups such as veterans and survivors of domestic violence.
Additionally, HELP USA is a data-driven organization focused on performance and based on client need. HELP has played a leadership role in bringing new data-driven practices to the management of permanent housing facilities. Over the past three years, HELP has implemented new performance management and data collection systems that have significantly improved the organization’s ability to meet its service goals.
TFG: Have you seen an increase in the homeless population in the wake of the economic downturn?
MCC: Yes, but more importantly, the face of homelessness has changed during the economic decline our country has suffered over the past year. Formerly employed individuals and families living above the poverty line who have lost their jobs, fallen behind on rent or mortgage payments, and subsequently lost their homes find themselves seeking shelter at HELP USA sites.
TFG: How do you help people get back on their feet?
MCC: One key thing that HELP USA does is a comprehensive assessment of their needs as soon as they arrive on-site. We work with them to access any mainstream entitlement programs they’re eligible for. We work with families holistically, seeking out the needs of the head of household as well as each dependent.
We then work with the clients from the day they come into the shelter with a plan for how and where their housing is going to be, which is again a result of the rapid rehousing focus. Through on-site services or referrals to community partners, we work to ensure all their needs are assessed in the short term and to help plan their housing strategy in the long term as well.
Finally, we offer a continuum of services at our shelters, including child care, employment services and training, referrals for mental health, and drug dependency programs. All these elements allow the clients to put their lives back on track and get back on their feet with our help. The term we use is “wraparound” services, wherein we meet and get to know the client, then “wrap our services around the client” to lend them the support they need.
TFG: Do you think that homelessness can ever be eradicated totally?"
MCC: Yes, through investment in the creation of affordable housing, service-enriched housing and supportive housing for people with special needs, as well as tremendous investment in homelessness prevention and after-care services. It’s also important on the prevention side and post-placement side to ensure that the clients have access to services that will help stabilize them, and a major part of that is employment. HELP USA believes that helping clients become financially self-sufficient will help eradicate homelessness in the long run, and we do this by linking them to the appropriate resources so they do not lapse or relapse into homelessness.
TFG: Tell us about the Mentoring USA and Street Soccer USA programs.
MCC: Mentoring USA, founded by former first lady of the state of New York Matilda Raffa Cuomo, is an effective, early-intervention mentoring program to prevent school dropout. By providing mentors at schools, community centers and foster care agencies, Mentoring USA helps children ages 7 to 21 improve their self-esteem through financial literacy training, nutrition and wellness, and bias-related anti-violence education. The Mentoring USA model has proven to be effective in helping a child to reach his or her full potential. When each child is matched with a trained, caring adult volunteer mentor on a one-to-one basis, the child’s grades improve, school absenteeism minimizes, and children gain confidence and hope for the future.
Street Soccer USA is a social change organization that offers innovative, sports-based solutions to eradicating homelessness and poverty. Founded by Lawrence Cann in Charlotte in 2004, the now 16-city SSUSA league spans every region of the country, with its headquarters based in New York under the umbrella of the nationally recognized homeless services provider HELP USA. Street Soccer USA hosts the USA Cup in Washington, D.C., each summer, and the top eight players at the USA Cup represent the country in the Homeless World Cup, to be played in Milan, Italy, in 2009.
TFG: Where do you see HELP USA 10 years from now?
MCC: Our primary focus is on the development of new and affordable houses, particularly for homeless veterans and other special-needs populations both locally and nationally. We will continue to expand in Las Vegas and develop additional housing in New Jersey and other sites on the East and West coasts that will employ HELP USA’s holistic approach to housing.
TFG: What don’t most people know about the current state of homelessness in America?
MCC: Most people don’t realize the startling statistic of homeless veterans in the USA today. One in three homeless men is a veteran of war, and perhaps as many as 8,000 homeless women are veterans as well. This latter statistic is going to rise as the numbers of women in the military increases in recent wars. Due to the economy, for those families that were marginally able to hold onto their housing, it’s becoming harder and harder, and as a result, the face of homelessness is very, very diverse. It encompasses families, children, and employed and educated individuals.
TFG: How can we help?
MCC: HELP USA and its programs, Mentoring USA and Street Soccer USA, as well as the services geared toward veterans and survivors of domestic violence, can use your help in a number of important ways. Of course, donations and fundraising are a key part of the work we do, since without it, our programs and the people they help would suffer. Yet volunteering your time is perhaps even more important. In this era focused on community service and volunteerism, we hope to attract the support of individuals in families in the areas we serve who can dedicate time to HELP USA, Mentoring USA and Street Soccer USA at sites nationwide.
For more information, to volunteer or to make a donation, please visit www.helpusa.org.
FROM HOMELESS TO A SOCIAL WORKER WITH A MASTER’S,
HOW ONE MOM TURNED HER LIFE AROUND WITH A LITTLE HELP FROM HER FRIENDS
Today, Josephine Mitchell is a mother and a social worker at HELP USA, but 20 years ago, she entered the emergency homeless system with her daughter, son and mother. She was recommended to HELP USA and moved into a beautiful new apartment with a park and a playground. Her children were enrolled in daycare and a social service program to support her family while she found a job and got her life back together. Tragedy struck not long after she started to get back on track. One day when her son left the HELP USA permanent housing facility where they lived, he was shot and killed by a local gang member.
Somehow Josephine persevered. She had a duty to her remaining family and to the new family in her HELP USA community. She continued her education and earned a bachelor’s from The College of New Rochelle. She then found employment at HELP 1 and was able to complete a master’s degree in social work at Fordham University while she was working.
Today Josephine works at the HELP USA site where she used to reside, as the educational coordinator of the after-school program. Her daughter is 20 and is a senior in college, and Josephine works hard every day to be a role model for her and the clients she serves at HELP USA. She is thankful for the organization that gave her a second chance; the organization that truly lives up to its name.