First Things First: Taking on Hunger

Addressing hunger was the first respond to the findings of the AdvantAge Initiative. In tackling that challenge, an existing partner became more involved, a new partner came to the table, and projects and interventions were put in place that appear to have greatly reduced hunger as an issue in the community.

The American Bible Society, headquartered just a few blocks away, was already a member of the NORC Advisory Council, and its Christmas luncheon and Easter and Thanksgiving baskets were popular with older adults. Lincoln Square’s focus on hunger resonated for the Bible Society, drawing them in as a more active player. Immediately, it launched its first food drive, which is now a recurring activity, with proceeds going directly to senior residents or to the center’s congregate lunch project.

“The Bible Society found a niche that was relevant to them and their mission,” says Stephanie Pinder, the neighborhood center's executive director. [The hunger projects have also proved to be an entry point for further engagement with this partner. The Bible Society is now developing a home visiting project and has introduced NORC program staff to colleagues at the nearby American Museum of Natural History so they can talk about ways to bring older adults into the museum.]

In seeking other resources to deal with hunger, Lincoln Square worked to increase Meals on Wheels services, and was introduced to the Community Food Bank of NYC. Its connections with this new partner, coupled with foundation funding from the Tuttle Fund and the Guttman Foundation, has allowed staff to purchase bulk food at a reduced price, create a food pantry that distributes fresh produce and canned goods, and expand the availability of congregate meals from three to five days a week.

“Our sense is that we have made an impact. We hear seniors saying ‘thank you, you have made a difference, this has been important to me,’ ” says Pinder. “But we can’t yet say firmly that hunger has been reduced by a certain percentage.” A grant from the Samuels Foundation will allow the AdvantAge Initiative to resurvey Lincoln Square in 2008 and hopefully, will produce just that data.

Tapping Resident Knowledge: Safety and Security

Seniors in the Lincoln Square community knew something more about crime than the local police. But the cops were willing to listen.

The AdvantAge Initiative survey showed that more than one-quarter of older residents felt unsafe in their own backyard. Neighborhood center staff invited the New York City Police Department to attend the Advisory Council meeting at which they presented that data. The officer who came tried to be reassuring, explaining that local statistics actually showed a low incidence of crime.

NORC program staff had to probe to understand why official crime logs seemed to contradict the perception of danger. The residents at the meeting helped make meaning from it all. There was drug-dealing in the community, they said, but they were afraid to report it. The police responded that crimes that don’t get reported don’t get addressed.

But the fear among residents was not misplaced: After one had anonymously reported a drug dealer in her building, the police had picked him up, knocked on her door with the man in tow, and asked, “is this the guy?” Clearly, new policies and procedures were needed.

The Advisory Council established a Safety and Security Task Force to begin a dialogue, identify possible solutions, and monitor results. Someone on the council mentioned the Westside Crime Prevention Program and a representative was invited down to talk about actionable and safe strategies for reporting crimes. As a result:

  • Six police officers were assigned specifically to the public housing complex where the NORC program is located.
  • A staff member from Westside Crime Prevention acts as a go-between, protecting the anonymity of senior residents by taking their crime reports and turning them over to the police.
  • Older adults are being trained to provide the detail that is necessary in a crime report for the cops to take effective action.
  • Advisory Council members, including elected officials, have pressured the city’s Housing Authority to remove trash, and to fix the broken intercoms that can open the door to intruders.
  • The Safety and Security Task Force continues to meet, maintaining a forum for dialogue among the police, the Housing Authority and the community.
  • The protocol in place for reporting crimes in Lincoln Square has been replicated by other public housing developments in New York.

All of these measures keep attention on basic safety, which is a prerequisite for most other forms of community engagement. Still, Stephanie Pinder acknowledges that “safety and security will always be issues. There is never just one solution.”

A Continuum of Mental Health Services

With its finding that 56% of Lincoln Square Neighborhood Center survey respondents felt depressed or anxious – and weren’t getting the mental health services they needed – the AdvantAge Initiative highlighted the prevalence of depression and anxiety in the community.

Data also showed that:

  • Two-thirds of residents who showed signs of depression and anxiety on a broad screening test met the diagnostic criteria for moderate or severe depression when a more in-depth assessment was conducted. Three people needed to be hospitalized immediately.
  • Almost everyone offered some form of mental health services was willing to use them.

The neighborhood center has responded to those findings by embedding mental health practice into the fabric of its NORC program, doing as much as possible on its home territory, and creating a continuum of other service options.

As an early step, staff created a Partnership Council, bringing together many of the agencies involved in the complex work of geriatric mental health on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The collaborative network includes providers at the Hudson Guild, United Neighborhood Houses, the Alzheimer’s Association, the Institute of Urban Family Health, and elsewhere.

Drawing on the full range of expertise available in the community:

  • NORC program staff has been trained to talk about depression with their clients.
  • Every senior who interacts with the NORC program is screened for depression.
  • Fitness classes, yoga, support groups, and access to a licensed clinical social worker are available.
  • A geriatric psychiatric fellow comes in once a week to address severe needs. That’s a win:win: The fellows get access to a diverse community of seniors, enhancing the opportunity for learning, and the seniors get the support they need.

As is so often the case, funding sources have evolved. The Daniels Fund helped launch many of the mental health services with a $100,000 grant. When that ended, Lincoln Square met the shortfall for a year with its own general operating revenue and then the Samuels Foundation stepped in with a $212,000, three-year grant.

Now, a long-range plan for sustainability is being put into place. Lincoln Square expects to be designated a New York State Department of Health “Article 28” site, allowing it to provide insurance-reimbursable mental health services. Continued...

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