Six nights a week, two or three Columbia student volunteers walk down Broadway wearing red North Face backpacks filled with sandwiches, socks, toiletries, and feminine hygiene products. They share these items in an effort to create and sustain relationships with members of their community who are experiencing homelessness.
But when the volunteers returned from winter break this year, they no longer had a budget. Anne-Marie Dillon, a Columbia College first-year, was heartbroken. “We were still passing the same people that we had developed friendships with over 10 weeks of doing service. I just remember going outside of Morton Williams and people saying, ‘We haven't seen you! I mean, you're back from break. Where are you guys? The red backpacks!’” The January temperatures made it sting all the more.
Four weeks into the semester, they received their budget. But, “The trust that we had built,” says Dillon, “... felt like it had been set back almost irreparably.”
The red North Face backpacks in question have become a distinctive characteristic of Housing Equity Project’s new direct outreach program. The program’s central tenet, says Ryan Spada, a Columbia College first-year, engages with stark class divisions in the neighborhood. “We all as Columbia students are implicated in this, but we also have a unique position in which we can do something about it.”
HEP is a student group run by Community Impact, an organization which oversees student volunteer groups, and had allocated $400 per semester to them at the start of the year. Previously, HEP had concentrated their efforts to address homelessness on staffing two shelters. At the end of the fall semester, Dillon tells me, they were promised $200 per week to support the new initiative.
But Community Impact has funding difficulties of its own—namely that it routinely has to advocate to the University for its budget. Its website reads, “In recent years, the substantial growth in the number of programs and the number of volunteers at Community Impact has outpaced its growth in staffing and funding, thereby challenging Community Impact’s ability to fully meet the needs of both its clients and its student volunteers.” When asked about HEP receiving its budget late, a University spokesperson declined to comment.
While it was seductive to do “something that feels completely student-run and grassroots,” Dillon says, the members of HEP agreed that in order to best support the direct outreach program, they needed to “institutionalize”—that is, they wanted the support of Columbia’s institutional infrastructure.
Spada and Dillon are not the first Columbia affiliates to view interacting with those experiencing homelessness in the neighborhood as a small yet important way to heal a damaged relationship with the surrounding area. From 1981 to 1993, the University housed a full-service shelter and outreach center, staffed by students and faculty of six of Columbia’s graduate schools, called Columbia University Community Services. In 1993, CUCS was transitioned into an independent non-profit entity named the Center for Urban Community Services (retaining the acronym), and Columbia ceased funding and staffing it.
Today, universities in Boston and Philadelphia maintain their own student-staffed homeless shelters, but Columbia’s lone institutionally-backed efforts at homeless outreach are HEP and an open clinic run by its medical school. Like CUCS did in the 1980s, other institutions’ shelters pioneer innovative approaches to homeless service, create bonds between the university and its surrounding community, and inculcate compassion and civic responsibility in America’s rising leaders.
New York City grapples with an ever-worsening crisis of housing and homelessness, but the generation of leaders who believed that Columbia’s academic mission and core function included civic responsibility are long gone. HEP’s budget difficulties are one symptom of a larger cultural shift at Columbia—a departure from the recognition that direct service to the community is a responsibility, rather than an extracurricular activity run by individuals.
Nothing at Columbia today resembles the sort of interdisciplinary effort at direct service that CUCS once conducted. Instead, the University employs a number of indirect methods to ameliorate the housing and homelessness crisis. Those methods fall into two categories.
First, as outlined in a statement to The Eye, the University financially supports outside groups who serve the community, primarily through the Manhattanville Community Benefits Agreement—a 2009 contract between Columbia and the West Harlem Development Corporation—and Columbia Community Service. The University provides office space in its buildings to organizations like Goddard Riverside Community Center, which provides homeless services and tenant advocacy. The CBA also includes a $76 million Benefits Fund that provides grants to nonprofits—none of which, so far, relate to homelessness—as well as a $10 million commitment to affordable housing.
Second, students in Columbia’s undergraduate and professional schools can volunteer for direct service organizations working in the community. Mary Zulack, a professor in the Law School who created a course called Law and Policy of Homelessness, sends law students to do pro bono tenant advocacy work. Students at the School of Social Work do field placements, and through the Columbia-Harlem Homeless Medical Partnership, medical students and faculty operate a free weekly drop-in clinic in the basement of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church.
Community Impact, founded in 1981, remains a hub for undergraduate student service opportunities, including HEP. Before the advent of direct outreach, the organization had already been sending volunteers to a church basement in the Upper West Side for decades to serve as the shelter’s overnight volunteers.
For Spada and Dillon, their first year at Columbia has been a radicalizing experience. From columbia buy sell memes, to The Fed headlines, to the “Disorientation” zine slipped under Dillon’s door during NSOP, Spada and Dillion were both struck by the level of impassioned talk that portrayed Columbia as a landlord and gentrifier. But, Spada says, “I realized quickly that there wasn't any institutionalized way in which [students] were combating that.”
Through Columbia College junior Dan Driscoll, whom Spada met at his pre-orientation program, Spada and Dillion were introduced to HEP. Driscoll, a former Spectator opinion associate, had plans to build a new direct outreach initiative through HEP, aimed at providing aid and creating relationships with the homeless surrounding Columbia.
HEP’s main focus in expanding their direct outreach, Dillon tells me, is institutionalizing: creating dependability both within the club and within the community. They stay away from letting people have “a little one night volunteer moment.” Volunteers are expected to make a semester-long commitment for one night per week, reading and finals week included. “It's about making a recognizable team of advocates … students at Columbia that they can like feel seen by, flag down and talk to, ask for things, and even just have a conversation,” she says.
Around 1980, a new phenomenon emerged in New York and cities across America. Suddenly, Americans were encountering people sleeping on park benches and church stoops, wandering in the streets, and begging in public places.
The emergence of this newly visible population stemmed from the widespread 1970s policy of deinstitutionalization, in which patients were discharged en masse from state hospitals and mental institutions. In New York, many of these discharged patients found their ways into nursing homes and single-room occupancy hotels. SROs are apartment buildings with single-room units and shared common spaces, bathrooms, and kitchens, where poor residents could pay by day or week. At SROs, many of which were substandard housing, poor single people were isolated from support services.
Beginning in the late 1950s, existing SROs had been targeted by the city government as well as landowners like Columbia in the name of urban revitalization. In the early 1980s, shortly into his first term, President Ronald Reagan severely cut production and maintenance of public housing, and cut incentives for developers to build low-income housing. The result was a housing crisis that would last generations. By the mid-1980s, over one million SRO apartments had disappeared nationwide. In New York, by one measure, “the number of single-room units fell from approximately 129,000 in 1960 to just 25,000 in 1978.”
Suddenly, indigence was a visible, persistent part of the American urban landscape in a way not seen since the Great Depression. By 1981, a small group of activists in New York—led by two Columbia graduate students—had named these people “the homeless” and begun to call attention to their plight.
One of those graduate students was Kim Hopper, now a medical anthropologist at the School of Public Health who co-founded the New York City-based activist group Coalition for the Homeless in 1979. In the early 1980s in the city, Hopper tells me, there was an atmosphere of all-hands-on-deck. Churches began opening their basements up as homeless shelters and religious leaders became vocal about the need for everybody to pitch in. Service and advocacy groups sprang up around the city, and the municipal government, desperate for help, began awarding them contracts to provide services.
When Tony Hannigan, executive director of CUCS, thinks about how his organization came to be, he starts with a meeting in 1979. He was working at the regional office of the State Department of Mental Health in the World Trade Center. One day, his former graduate school adviser at the Columbia School of Social Work, George Brager, strolled into the office and gave a presentation. Brager and his colleague, Mel Herman, were on the hunt for potential funding sources to sign onto a radical initiative.
A few months earlier, Brager and a few professional school deans had convinced then University President William McGill to set up a task force to study whether Columbia could use its resources to alleviate troubles faced by single low-income residents of the Upper West Side. Brager, an associate professor in the School of Social Work, chaired the task force, and worked closely with Herman, another professor of Social Work on loan from the federal Department of Health and Human Services.
In 1980, the University accepted the task force’s proposal for a neighborhood outreach program with a dual purpose: direct service to single poor people in the neighborhood, and development of research and curricula on the needs of the “most disadvantaged” members of society. The reasoning was that the best way to learn how to help single poor people was to help single poor people and then reflect on it. According to Herman, the proposed initiative was also aimed at healing the University’s “adversarial” relationship with the community.
“For this population, the problems faced aren't easily [divisible] into the normal professional disciplines,” Brager explained. “Our program will bring the disciplines together and place them at the access of the poor, rather than making the poor go to each one separately.”
The State Department of Social Services initially committed $300,000 to the program, while the University set aside $125,000, in addition to free office space and the time of its students and faculty members.
That program proposed by the task force named itself Columbia University Community Services, and began its work in September of 1980. To oversee CUCS’s everyday operations, Brager hired Hannigan, also a scholar who wanted to make a difference. As a master’s student at the School of Social Work from 1976 to 1978, Hannigan considered Brager his teacher and mentor. “As a social worker,” Hannigan says, Brager’s community organizing and anti-poverty focus “just completely resonated with me.” Like Brager’s, his direct service orientation was influenced by the politics of the 1960s. “I was sort of part of the Vietnam War era,” Hannigan says.
At first, Hannigan and his multidisciplinary band of about 50 students provided social services and legal assistance at two SROs, and made referrals to medical, dental, and nursing students, who worked out of St. Luke’s Hospital and CUCS’s first office at 115th and Amsterdam. At the Parkview on 110th Street, CUCS rented two rooms for services. At the Whitehall on 100th Street, where tenants were being slowly evicted, they helped their clients to form a tenants union, organized rent strikes and rallies, and provided legal aid to tenants attempting to try their cases in court.
By the time Hannigan started his work in 1981, the relationship between deinstitutionalization, the decrease in SROs, and the emerging phenomenon of homelessness was clear to him. Accordingly, his vision of service didn’t just include studying or addressing the material, medical, and psychiatric needs of single poor people. It also involved addressing the sources of those needs.
“Did I think I could save the Whitehall?” Hannigan laughs, “Yes, I did. I was certainly interested in helping those individuals in there, but yeah, I guess I thought I could.”
By the end of the 1980 to 1981 academic year, CUCS had captured the attention of Spectator. It had also developed a curriculum for a course on deinstitutionalization and course materials on public entitlements, psychotropic medication, and grassroots organizing. In June 1981, Brager was named dean of the School of Social Work and announced that doing more to help the urban poor would be a foremost priority.
In a moment when larger social service organizations were slower to react to the crisis of homelessness, Hannigan tells me that CUCS was part of the grassroots movement working to tackle the issue. The organization secured a contract with the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to establish a homeless drop-in center in a Columbia building—a place where the program’s multifaceted, interdisciplinary service approach could be fully realized. CUCS eventually landed in a Columbia-owned brownstone on West 115th Street between Broadway and Riverside.
Soon, a rhythm began to take hold. Students were assigned cases and worked in interdisciplinary teams that shared clients and coordinated their approaches. Hannigan looks back on the weekly all-staff meetings fondly: “We'd bring all the students and faculty together, and we'd discuss these case stories. ‘Did we make the right move? Did we do the right thing on behalf of this client?’” He recounts discussions: “‘This is what Law did, this is what Social Work did.’ ‘The tenant is going to be evicted from Parkview, this is how we handled it. Should we have handled it differently?’ So there were conversations about ethics, too.”
Before long, they began to expand their services and approach to develop innovative solutions, using what they knew about single poor adults and their needs. Namely, they helped to develop and elaborate on the concept of supportive housing, which is affordable housing that has onsite social services. Working with nonprofit housing development organizations, they helped plan and develop over 100 units of supportive housing.
While CUCS hummed along, however, the infrastructure that supported it began to shift. In 1983, CUCS lost one of its strongest and highest-profile advocates when Herman died tragically of a heart attack. Then, in 1986, Brager returned to a teaching role and was succeeded by Ronald Feldman as dean of the School of Social Work.
In his penthouse office in the School of Social Work, with the steeple of Riverside Church peeking out behind him in the window, Professor Feldman tells me that he was happy to let CUCS and Hannigan operate autonomously, especially because most of its operating budget came from government contracts. “We heard good things about their work and did everything just stay out of their way and be supportive. But that was about it,” Feldman says.
In retrospect, Hannigan feels that CUCS was made possible because it existed within a very specific time and place. As he puts it “At the time [the School of Social Work] had a particular interest in direct services and community organizing. And the faculty [CUCS] seemed to attract from the other schools … also had this interest in direct service.”
Hopper tells me that he and many other Columbia affiliates were motivated by a sense of reparations for the implicit and explicit damage done by Columbia’s presence in West Harlem, even if they couched their proposals to administrators in the language of educational benefits for students. Herman articulated that attitude in 1981, saying, “The community has seen Columbia as a big Goliath concerned with students and faculty and not with its neighbors,” but also that “Columbia represents enormous potential to help the community.”
By the early 1990s, says Hannigan, “There was just less interest in doing this type of work. The University wanted us to move more towards research and education, and felt that direct service programs were not [Columbia’s] mission.” In 1993, CUCS split off from Columbia entirely, becoming an independent nonprofit.
Today, the Center for Urban Community Services is headquartered in East Harlem and has a staff of over 500. Along with two other organizations, CUCS is under contract with the city to provide all street outreach efforts in Manhattan. Last year, Hannigan tells me, they placed 128 people from the streets of the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights into housing. CUCS is one of many organizations trying to develop supportive housing and other cutting-edge models that address the needs of the homeless population while also responding to the acute housing shortage. But by some measures, they are hopelessly outmatched.
Indeed, the irony of Columbia’s retreat from homeless services is that homelessness today dwarfs the phenomenon that Hopper, Hannigan, and others were so alarmed by in the 1980s. While the economy appears strong on paper, there are as many people experiencing homelessness in New York City now as during the Great Depression when a quarter of Americans were unemployed. Decades of federal disinvestment in low-income housing, wage stagnation, and skyrocketing rents have led to a new paradigm in American life—while single individuals characterized homelessness in the 1980s, as if left behind by their economy, the majority of persons experiencing homelessness today are the children and parents of working families, with children making up 36 percent of New York City’s homeless.
Because of New York City’s unique legal Right to Shelter, most of the money in the city goes into the inefficient emergency shelter system, rather than permanent housing solutions. Even as tens of thousands move from shelters into more permanent housing every year, the number of homeless people continues to increase. Precarity in housing and income has become the norm, and homelessness is its most visible result. Now more than ever, New York City needs radical housing solutions.
In 1983, a student at Harvard Divinity School—aghast at the contrast between his gated campus and the homelessness he saw on the streets of Cambridge—worked with local church leaders to open Harvard Square Homeless Shelter in the basement of University Lutheran Church. Corey Gold, the organization’s media director, tells me they have a staff of about 30 student “directors” who make substantial weekly time commitments, and about 200 student volunteers, mostly undergraduates, each year.
Scott Seider, a professor of education at Boston University who studies the civic development of adolescents and young adults, spent a year studying how HSHS impacted its college-aged volunteers and homeless clients, resulting in his book, Shelter: Where Harvard Meets the Homeless. Seider is interested in the particular traits of college students that make them “uniquely suited to working with marginalized communities such as the homeless,” including their passion, idealism, and listening skills. It was because of those qualities, he believes, that student staffers continued to expand HSHS’s services and reach over the years, launching direct outreach and resource advocacy operations. One guest described HSHS to Seider as the “Cadillac of homeless shelters.”
While HSHS relies heavily on municipal and state contracts, it also could not exist without the infrastructure provided by Harvard, including the support of Phillip Brooks House, Harvard’s long-standing civic engagement and philanthropy organization.
In 2011, Stephanie Sena, a professor of history at Villanova University, heard a story about HSHS on the radio and was inspired. With significant effort, she started the Student-Run Emergency Housing Unit, a homeless shelter modeled after HSHS. Soon, chapters of SREHUP sprung up at the University of Pennsylvania, Drexel, Swarthmore, Temple, and the Pennsylvania College of Medicine. Now, participants of SREHUP’s chapters are working on developing a village of tiny homes, which are essentially supportive housing, Sena tells me.
In helping support the founding of CUCS, Columbia didn’t take on that much risk—after all, most of the funding came from external sources. What made CUCS remarkable was that it marshaled the brainpower and idealism of Columbia students and faculty to work with the community and develop innovative solutions to local social problems.
In 1982, Herman admitted that some students who disapproved of the University’s relationship to the neighborhood saw CUCS as “just a public relations caper.” A New York Times article in 1993 agreed with them, saying the effort only emerged because of “the University’s embarrassment over evicting people from old SROs in Morningside Heights in order to build dormitories.”
Herman countered that “Neither the community nor Columbia is monolithic. Yes, some of the University’s interests are in conflict with those of parts of the neighborhood.” But, he pointed out that some Columbia affiliates have an additional agenda: “We believe the University has a responsibility to use its faculty and student resources to help solve some of the community’s problems.” Some students and faculty still have such an agenda, but now there is less of an infrastructure to allow them to make a difference.
Red backpacks slung over their shoulders, Dillon and Spada still have three years of attending Columbia to go, and they assure me that they have big aspirations for expanding HEP’s services. Still, Dillon says that the most crucial and “Sisyphean” task is “making sure that this isn't something that disappears when the first group of team leaders graduates.”
If the history of CUCS is any indication, they have their work cut out for them.
Editor’s note: The writer was formerly a volunteer with Housing Equity Project. He has no current affiliation with the organization and no personal relations to the sources interviewed.
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