Nonprofit leaders say organizations that play a key part in New York City’s social safety net are facing an increasing crisis of uncertain funding, a lack of supplies, dwindling numbers of volunteers and challenges to executing their missions in a city in virtual lockdown.
In a letter sent to the de Blasio administration on March 9th, representatives of the nonprofit sector asked for an adequate governmental response for “the sector to have continuity of operations and best serve staff and clients.” Additionally, the letter warned, “the sector cannot wait any longer for action and we need a swift and clear response.”
For instance, a week ago there was no hand sanitizer at Staples, from which some of these organizations order some supplies. That directly impacted some programs. “NMIC’s green cleaning worker coop, Ecomundo, can’t get cleaning supplies, therefore, it can’t take any new jobs or keep their old clients,” says Maria Lizardo, Northern Manhattan Improvement Corporation’s executive director. “This worker coop was started to provide an employment alternative to immigrant victims of domestic violence and they may go out of business.”
According to Nora Moran, director of policy & advocacy at United Neighborhood Houses, which represents 43 settlement houses across New York, “the shortage is everywhere.”
Nonprofit leaders on Friday were circulating a second letter that read in part:
Our sector is committed to ending COVID-19. But, the government’s responses to support nonprofits have not been enough. Nonprofits face an immediate financial crisis, while now protecting our communities against a global pandemic. We called upon philanthropy, and they are responding. The scale of this crisis is beyond the resources philanthropy alone can solve. Nonprofits demand immediate, explicit action and commitments from the city, state, and federal government to endure the COVID-19 pandemic and recession.
At some senior centers—which have closed, but are still offering meal services—there is still a lack of masks, gloves, paper towels, and equipment to protect staff while seniors pick up their food. Due to this situation, the staff is facing the dilemma of whether they should keep providing services to needy people without the means to protect themselves.
According to Moran, senior centers are places that provide social connections to older adults who might not have close ties, and being socially isolated will definitely impact seniors’ health. The mere idea of ending all services and deepening that isolation is heartbreaking, so Moran proposes that senior centers be as flexible as possible.
Organizations like Sunnyside Community Services serves 16,000 adults annually, in addition to 2,500 youths and seniors. “All of the services are affected,” says Judith Zangwill, SCS Executive Director.
Additionally, several locations have seen a decline of volunteers, “especially senior center programs and meals-on-wheels programs across the board,” emphasizes Moran. And for some seniors, it means missing “the only hot meal in the day or recreation,” says Michelle Jackson, Human Services Council Executive Director.
The horizon looks uncertain for these organizations. The city’s Department of Small Business Services announced that the city will provide relief for small businesses (including non-profits), but Moran is afraid that many human-services nonprofits will have trouble fitting into a program intended to help profit-making firms. “Some organizations have more than 100 people,” she says. “Nothing similar [grants or loans] exists for human services.”
The nonprofit coalition is asking for a “robust, coordinated, and centralized response to COVID-19 for the human services sector” says the letter.
As Moran explains, there are organizations that have just enough money to run for two more weeks and after that, it will probably be layoffs and other cuts. Right now, she says, “these workers are in limbo.”
For example, youth services program teachers are asking whether they are going to keep their jobs or not. For those who work with English as a Second Language (ESL) programs, this is the second major blow over the past year. “Before this crisis hit, we had the public charge ruling” says Moran.
Also, moving programs online has been difficult. “As we moved our adult classes to distant learning, we came face to face with the digital divide. Some of our community members don’t have access to computers and wifi and don’t have the computer skills to move forward quickly with distant learning. Our staff has spent one on one time with folks in order to get them ready for distant learning,” explains Lizardo.
Another fear is what will happen when funders evaluate these organizations. Their benchmarks might not be achievable due to the disruption of regular activities. That is why one of the many demands presented to the city is an agreement to “pay contracted human services providers their full budgeted expenses through the end of the fiscal year even if they are unable to meet their contractual obligations due to this public health crisis,” as it is stated in the letter.
“We are about 80 percent government-funded,” wrote Zangwill through email. This is the case for the majority of settlement houses and human services organizations. To ease some of these concerns, the City sent a letter on Wednesday saying that “the City will reimburse providers for contract expenses even if usual service delivery is suspended or modified, as long as this is done in consultation with their City agency.” And for “service modifications that cost more to deliver than what was originally contracted, the City will pay the additional costs. Providers must keep records of all COVID-19 expenses”.
Moran has seen reason to hope in messages of support and the formation of hyper-local aid groups.
“People can help by supporting the local economy: Get take out food, go to your local bodega to get groceries, donate to nonprofits who are struggling to pay their staff, reach out to seniors, and don’t forget to complete the 2020 Census,” she says. “We have to make sure that everyone is counted otherwise, we will lose billions of dollars and representation.”