University's Drop-In Centers Serve As 'Brokers' for the Poor
NEW YORK — OFTEN the smallest things - from not knowing how to fill out forms to not knowing where to get housing and employment help - keep the homeless from the services they need, says Tony Hannigan, executive director of Columbia University Community Services (CUCS). He and his staff of 55, who run a drop-in center for the homeless here at the campus headquarters and four residential service programs, consider themselves brokers. They help negotiate a path through the complexities of welfare and housing.
Mitchell Ginsberg, dean emeritus of Columbia University's school of social work, has worked closely with the organization since its 1980 beginning. He says its combined service approach has been duplicated by a number of other universities.
Administered by the university and funded in part by New York City, the CUCS program provides 137 units of housing and a wide range of health, legal, and social services for homeless people.
"Housing is first and foremost the issue in homelessness, and I think the emphasis we've placed on it has helped advocates in their work to get the city and state and general officialdom to recognize that this is a primary need," Mr. Hannigan says.
In his upstairs office at the drop-in center, which offers shower and dining facilities in the basement, he pulls out a newspaper clipping to underscore his point. The news is of a court decision ordering New York City to provide stable housing and services for about 10,000 homeless mental patients. Municipal hospitals routinely discharge such patients to the nearest shelter.
One of CUCS's prime achievements so far, Hannigan says, has been to demonstrate that many "disabled" homeless can remain in their communities with minimal support. "I think we've been exemplary in showing that people can go right from the street and into housing," he says.
One agency program, for instance, which Hannigan calls the first of its kind, finds and guarantees appropriate housing for mentally ill women staying in one municipal shelter. CUCS found such housing for 131 such women in an 18-month period ending last June. Recent follow-up studies show a 90 percent holding rate.