Testimony of Executive Director Roderick L. Jones on the City Budget

May 22, 2020

Dear Council Members:

As the executive director of Goddard Riverside, an organization serving more than 20,000 New Yorkers a year, I’m asking you to stand by the city’s most vulnerable residents in their hour of need.

Goddard’s 27 programs serve currently and formerly homeless people, those living with mental illness, disadvantaged youth, older adults and low-income families. These populations are already being hit hard by COVID-19 and its social impacts. We should not ask them to bear the brunt of the economic downturn as well.

When the pandemic struck, Goddard responded. Our kitchen staff began turning out meals to enable some 600 medically vulnerable residents of our buildings to shelter at home. That number quickly grew to include Senior Center members in our neighborhood. Employees from our youth programs helped deliver the meals. Our Lincoln Square center teamed up with private donors to distribute food to local residents. We also began working to coordinate relief with our neighboring NYCHA buildings. This week our staff climbed staircases to distribute hand sanitizer and face masks in the 36 buildings of NYCHA’s Westside Urban Renewal Brownstones.  

Phones became a lifeline as our programs checked in on their participants regularly. “I have received calls from the teachers, the social worker and the administration,” wrote one parent of an Early Learning student. “Not only is my son’s welfare taken into account, but also mine. There are no words that will ever say how much this means to me and my family.”

As PAUSE continued, our programs for young people began meeting online. One parent wrote to us in gratitude when we launched After School sessions on Zoom. She said her daughter missed her peers badly and was thrilled to engage with them for the first time, since her school had only sent emails.

Having weathered the first phase of this crisis, Goddard is moving into phase two—offering direct financial aid to families facing mounting bills. We hope to help members of our community stave off the debts that can force people into homelessness and impact their future forever.

Goddard is knit into the fabric of our community. We understand how to support vulnerable people through tough times. Now, as the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression bears down on us, we feel keenly that our community needs us. But we must have the city’s support to keep working.

Even before disaster struck, Upper West Siders were concerned about an apparent uptick in street crimes by young people. Residents were gathering to press local lawmakers, police and organizations like us for solutions. It was our belief then—and it is our belief now—that youth programs in our neighborhoods need more funding, not less.

Young people have now been in lockdown for months. Summer is here, and without programs like Summer Camp and the Summer Youth Employment Program, they may have no structure or access to positive activities. Those who face problems at home may have no mentors to turn to. They will be vulnerable to other, less positive forces in their lives.

Our own Associate Deputy Executive Director for Youth & Aging, Steven Portericker, came up through the Summer Youth Employment Program. He worked with younger children at a local nonprofit. He recalls how validating it was at age 14 and 15 to have a job with impact. “It was great to feel like my presence mattered,” he recalls. “I felt proud of myself and confident.  I realized what it means to get a paycheck, and it put less pressure on my mom to give me money for school clothes and things.”

Every summer, we send young people into SYEP. Every summer, we hire them to work in our programs. Similarly, every summer we welcome many repeat campers back to our summer camps. They return to counselors they know and friends they’ve made in summers past. “They like the consistency,” says Nadine Ware Evans, director of our Beacon program. “They build relationships.” Now this consistency will be gone, along with the enriching activities our camps offer.

Taking the summer programs online is undoubtedly a challenge, but one can look to examples like our own Learning to Work program for inspiration. Learning to Work is embedded at West Side High, a transfer school. It supports students who need a little extra help and a different approach to finish school. It also arranges paid internships to help them build their resumes.

Learning to Work has gone online with gusto. One of the units it’s offering is modeled on the reality TV show Shark Tank. Participants attend Zoom meetings to learn about entrepreneurship. Then they design a product, write a pitch for it, and make a presentation to their peers and a panel of judges. Our Learning to Work staff have also taught students budgeting, how to create a resume and promotional flyers, and how to research careers. They’ve offered extracurricular activities including fitness classes, mindfulness, and sign language instruction.

If restrictions on gatherings permit, later this summer we can design activities that keep our young people safe while still offering support and structure. We can play a key role in teaching them how to observe social distancing. 

Even before COVID-19, community-based organizations like us were teetering on the edge due to city and state contracts that fail to cover the true costs of delivering services. Cuts to our existing contracts would force us to lay off staff, further intensifying the economic crisis. Meanwhile, the people we serve would face a greater threat of sliding into deep poverty.

In times like these, social services are often the first to get cut. But studies have shown time and again that austerity not only hurts the people at the bottom; it makes economic downturns longer and more severe. While understanding that the budget picture is extremely challenging, I ask you not to put the burden of this downturn on the backs of the poorest New Yorkers.

Our mayor has often spoken movingly about two New Yorks: one rich and one poor. We fear this crisis will not only widen that gap but set low-income families back for years to come. With your help, we can blunt this downturn and invest in creating the kind of fair and just society we all want to see.

Thank you for your time, and for your public service.

Roderick L. Jones
Executive Director, Goddard Riverside