Many Lifelines Under One Umbrella
Wed, 09/10/2008
Staff Writer
She may not have a lot, but 80-something-year-old Helen Stechler insists upon serving chilled Poland Spring water and a bowl of bright orange cantaloupe to her impromptu guests, as they enter her brand new studio apartment in Manhattan ’s Upper West Side. Stechler, who escaped the Nazi death marches in her teenage years, is now able to live comfortably among friends and even enjoys a special bond with Maryanne Pasquariello, her housing director. “It was love from first sight,” Stechler said, her straight hair pinned in a butterfly clip atop her less-than-five-foot stature. Nestled on the second floor and clad with pictures of her grandchildren, her apartment overlooks the Hudson River, just a few blocks down from the newly constructed Trump Towers. But Stechler’s rent pales in comparison to the living costs of her neighbors. Rather than paying nearly $1 million for a comparable studio condo, Stechler pays only $616 per month, thanks to subsidized housing provided by the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The Met Council, a UJA-Federation beneficiary, manages 2,000 residential units throughout the city, of which 1,600 are for senior citizens and 400 are for the formerly homeless or mentally ill. In addition to private donations, they receive money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Section 202 Program, as well as grants from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation. Opened only in January 2007, Stechler’s brand new building features 120 studio apartments for single seniors, whose annual incomes must range between $25,000 and $30,000, said Pasquariello, the Met Council residence director who oversees both 315 W. 61st St. in Manhattan and Weinberg Council Towers I in the Bronx. While her Bronx residence is meant for the very poor, who would likewise qualify for Section Eight federal housing, the Upper West Side building helps those who don’t quite qualify for government assistance but would still have trouble paying full New York rent on their own. Many of these residents still hold part-time jobs and make use of both the nearby city bus stop as well as Access-A-Ride, according to Pasquariello. Though this building is less than two years old, Pasquariello already has a waitlist of approximately 150 people who have applied to live in the building and take advantage of its social services. Among their housing applicants, the Met Council mainly receives referrals from the Department for the Aging, and from local congressmen, according to Pasquariello. Funding largely comes from the government, with 97 percent of the money stemming from city, state and federal sources, said William Rapfogel, executive director and chief executive officer of the Met Council. The housing program also receives plenty of space from for-profit real estate companies who obtain larger land plots by allocating 20 percent of their properties to affordable housing, through groups like the Met Council. Rapfogel remembers the excitement of opening the first residence—Pasquariello’s Council in Co-Op City, Bronx—back in 1993, but he also recalls the box of over 5,000 resident applications that remained unfilled at the time. “One of the things that has been a driving force in why we provide so much senior housing was this moment,” Rapfogel said. The newest residence project underway is the SeaView Senior Living building in the forests of Staten Island, a former tuberculosis hospital now being converted into brand new apartments for seniors, said Gary Gutterman, Met Council director of Housing. While 50 percent of these apartments will be rented to the general community at market rate, the second half will go to very low-income seniors, at $807 per month for a studio apartment and $864 for a one-bedroom. But subsidized housing is just one benefit that the Met Council provides to New York City’s poor and lower-middle -class residents, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. “As much as we try to build housing for seniors, we are never going to keep up with the demand,” Rapfogel said. In response to this inability, the Met Council began offering Home Care and Home Services to patients in their existing homes, under the auspices of Scott Garnier, executive director of Home Care Services, and Val Beloshkurenko, who oversees Home Services and maintenance repairs.  Often working side-by-side, these two programs provide services such as healthcare aides, housekeepers and companions, as well as in-home repair jobs through a handyman service. Fixing homes that are substandard rather than building new ones, the handyman workers install preventative equipment like grab bars to keep patients from slipping in the shower, Beloshkurenko said. Other initiatives include lowering doorway peepholes, to accommodate seniors who have gotten shorter. Within homecare and other programs, the Met Council has been facing internal financial problems, as a result of government funding cuts and subsequent in-house layoffs. “The economy is down, the government gets less in tax revenues and people are less in the position to give,” Rapfogel said. In response, he has been making proposals to the city government as to how funds could be more efficiently spent – both within the government and within the Met Council. For example, Rapfogel is hoping to begin using a laundry delivery service for clients, so that the home attendants currently employed in these positions will have more time to perform other duties. This way, he believes that the organization would save hundreds of millions of dollars and could remain the “fiscal conduit” for an umbrella network of Jewish Community Councils. In addition to home-centered projects, the Met Council also provides its clients with six different Career Services programs, including Medical Pathways, which trains low income New Yorkers to perform EMT and paramedic duties. This program, however, is in jeopardy of shutting down because running out of city grant money, according to Career Services director, Claire Bush. In its second yearly cycle is Project PIN, a cooperative course with Phillips Beth Israel School of Nursing that prepares international nurses to take the American licensure exam. This year, Bush said, the class includes a Russian physician who had to work as a dental assistant in the United States until this class helped her transition careers. A third Career Services program is called “All About Jobs” and provides computer literacy courses and vocational training, particularly aimed at young Orthodox Jews considered to be at risk for drug use or other dangerous behaviors, according to Bush. Though remediable through these programs, unemployment and financial struggle can take a severe emotional toll – often, however, people hesitate to seek help until crisis abounds, explained Jackie Ebron, director of Crisis Intervention and 30-year employee of the Met Council. Clients visit Ebron when their rent is due the next day, when food supplies are scarce and when domestic violence disturbs households. In response, Ebron tries to mend problems from under one roof, rather than outsourcing those who come to her office. This way, she is able to maintain trust and continuity, keeping people within the Met Council network of programs. If a client is legitimately having rent trouble, she will personally try to twinge payment schedules with landlords and utility companies. “Very rarely do I get no for an answer,” said Ebron, whose African American background but longtime work with a Jewish organization has earned her the title, “Mitzvah Mama” around the office. Whether her visitor needs to visit the Met Council food closet or simply needs someone to talk to, Ebron finds a solution for that person. Despite citywide financial losses and staffing shortages, she continues to provide the services needed. “This budget cut, it really hit me because I’m looking at all the people I can’t help,” Ebron said. But with the help of local Jewish Community Councils within New York City neighborhoods, Ebron hopes to target those specifically in need, to curb suffering as quickly as possible. “When a client comes to you they’re at their lowest tide and it’s your job to lift up their spirits, to give them the courage and the dignity to see another day, to survive,” she said.