KESÄBLOGI: From poverty to independent life – social work in New York City

Interview with Geniria Armstrong, Deputy Program Officer, Henry Street Settlement

Text: Heidi Hirvonen
Photos: Henry Street Settlement

HSS yhteiskuva

I take a subway from Greenwich Village to Lower East Side to meet a social worker Geniria Armstrong. She has promised to tell me about her work at Henry Street Settlement, which is one of the oldest and biggest NGOs in New York.

The organization was founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, a nurse who became a pioneer of social work and public health in the country. Today Henry Street Settlement has over 700 employees and 18 locations around the city. Last year the NGO welcomed more than 1500 volunteers who gave their time and expertise to the Settlement. The NGO is resourced by 92 government contracts and private support from foundations, corporations and individuals. The NGO serves over 60 000 individuals annually through social services, healthcare and arts.

I meet Geniria in the headquarters building at Henry Street. Her bright smile and optimistic attitude are making a good first impression. It is hard to believe, that this woman has been working along with extremely difficult issues over 30 years of time. First I have to ask, how has the field of social work changed in New York. ”Due to the increased demand of homeless services in NYC over the last 10 years, there has been more demand of licensed or skilled social workers than is available. It has become more challenging to attract appropriate, capable staff to work for the homeless population.”

There are more than 8 million people living in New York City. As in all the biggest metropolitan cities of the world, there is also a huge range of disparity of income and inequality in NYC. Henry Street Settlement develops the community by creating new possibilities of every day life for Lower East Side residents through innovative social services. There are programs for young people as well as seniors.


Shelter homes

New York City offers more public housing than any other city in the country. Despite of that, there are not enough cheap apartments available. Nearly 60 000 people are sleeping each night in the city shelters for homeless people. That is why there is a need for Settlement’s work.

Geniria Armstrong is in charge of Department of Transnational & Supportive Housing. The division has four shelter homes. Armstrong is responsible for the management of the agency’s four homeless shelters, including one for survivors of domestic violence.

Urban Family Shelter has places for 82 families with children. Helen’s House supports single adults with their kids. Third street women’s mental health shelter has 79 beds for single women. There is also special shelter home for the victims of violence. There are places for 26 mothers with their children. ”We have the only shelter in New York, which is open 24/7. The staff is living in the same building. This is the reason, why our work is so effective. Most of the clients are women. Women are often victims of domestic violence, even though this is not the only reason they are coming to our shelter home”, Armstrong explains.

The NGO also has a supportive housing facility – 52 studio apartments for homeless men and women. This year Geniria’s division has already served over 300 families – altogether over 600 adults and the same amount of children. 79 families and over 200 individuals have been placed into supportive housing.


Innovative aftercare program

The clients live in the shelter homes maximum 180 days. It is not easy to move from the shelter home to independent living. 60 percent of the clients of shelter homes have been in the system before, some of them were already there during their childhood. Many of the families in the shelter homes were returning to shelter because of a dearth of support systems to help them to face the challenges. ”That is why we have developed a new aftercare program. The program takes from six months to two years. The program will provide supportive services to families leaving shelter to smooth out the transition into permanent housing. It supports shelter residents moving into permanent apartments to help them succesfully settle in their new communities, thereby reducing the chance that they will return to shelter”, Geniria summarizes.

At last I have to ask from Geniria, what gives her the strength and the hope to work with these difficult issues? ”I question myself at times how I retain strength. I truly believe that a change is possible and that if you know better, you can do better. People can grow, develop and thrive, if surrounded by a supportive environment. I gain strength daily by knowing that the work we do at HSS provides support to those we serve. I have the advantage of witnessing our residents achieve success by obtaining employment, education, life skills and permanent housing. That gives me hope. Our most important goal is to look forward and help people from poverty to independent life.”

I believe her. The cycle of poverty can be broken. On my next blog I will tell you about a meeting with another special New Yorker working in the NGO.

Stay tuned!

The writer Heidi Hirvonen studied as a Fulbright scholar at the New York University summer 2016. In Finland she works as a Project Manager at MONIKA – Multicultural Women’s Association, Finland.

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