Four Challenges for the City in 2016—and Some Solutions

This op-ed was first published by Crain’s New York Business on December 4, 2015:

By Lorie A. Slutsky, President, New York Community Trust

During 25 years as president of one of New York’s leading charitable foundations, I’ve overseen more than $1 billion in grants to nonprofits doing vital work—from educating preschoolers to caring for the elderly. But I’ve come to understand that good intentions and charity alone can’t fix the city’s problems: Homelessness has reached record highs, graduating teens are ill-prepared for today’s jobs, and heroin deaths now exceed murders.

Still, every day I arrive at work optimistic. I’ve seen that well-targeted grants make a huge difference. It’s even more effective when a foundation like the New York Community Trust pools the gifts of generous neighbors, then joins other funders and government agencies to bring about change. Sometimes that change means significant savings for taxpayers, too.

As the holidays approach and donors think about pitching in, our staff has been looking at key issues for the year ahead. Here are four challenges for 2016, along with possible solutions.

Problem: The revolving door at homeless shelters. Homelessness in the city has reached the highest levels since the Great Depression. As of early November, about 57,000 people—more than 40% of them children—were sleeping in shelters. When a family loses a home, everything is disrupted, from commuting to a job to keeping the kids in a school. Many people keep returning to shelters. To break this cycle, the homeless need transitional services and affordable permanent housing.

Solution: Redesign shelters. My organization is funding a pilot project by Gateway Demonstration Assistance Corp. to redesign shelters so they offer permanent housing as well financial counseling, job training, and other services that lead to independence and stability. It promises to ease overcrowding at shelters and lighten the burden of city welfare agencies, school administrators and taxpayers.

Problem: The heroin epidemic. Heroin is cheap, available, and often deadly. Nationally, overdoses now cause an average of 110 fatalities a day—more than auto accidents. In the past three years, heroin-related overdoses have doubled in the city, with Staten Island being hit the hardest. Westchester and Long Island families are reeling from what once was seen as an “urban problem.”

Solution: Don’t just treat addiction. We’re working with a group at the epicenter, Community Health Action of Staten Island. Addicts need far more than drug treatment, so we’re funding classes on anger management, parenting, and finding a job. For the long term, we’re helping the group adapt to changes in the way health services are reimbursed so Medicaid can cover these wrap-around services. With our support, another group, the Legal Action Center, won passage of a law that requires insurance companies to pay for treatment of substance abuse. Now we’re funding efforts to ensure the law works. Our $300,000 investment will be well spent if it gets New York insurers to cover residential treatment, medication-assisted treatment such as methadone, and intensive outpatient care.

Problem: Young people in prison. Most teens in legal trouble don’t need incarceration. They need tutoring, job training, family counseling or mental health treatment. Bear in mind, it costs $150,000 a year—$12,500 a month—to lock up one inmate at Rikers.

Solution: Holistic advocacy. We helped Brooklyn Defender Services create a team that combines social workers and advocates. On a broader scale, politicians in Albany and Washington agree it’s time to overhaul the criminal justice system. We’re supporting nonprofit groups including JustLeadershipUSA as they explore shrinking the city’s jail system. If done right, this could save New Yorkers a lot of money.

Problem: Students miss out on tech jobs. The city’s tech sector grew 57% from 2007 to 2014, yet our public schools fail to provide training for these high-paying jobs. Girls, especially, are missing out science, technology, engineering and math. Most schools have mediocre science labs, poorly trained teachers and computer instructors with outdated knowledge.

Solution: Ask tech workers to help. Foundations like ours are working with local museums, colleges, private tech companies and programmers who want to give back. We’ve helped several groups start and expand programs on this front, including the Intrepid Museum Foundation, the Coalition for Queens, ScriptEd and the New York Academy of Medicine. This year, for example, Per Scholas, a Bronx nonprofit we’ve helped expand, will train more than 550 low-income job-seekers to be information-technology specialists.

Most of what community foundations do is behind the scenes and made possible by generous New Yorkers who set up funds today or in their wills. As we celebrate the holidays, we invite our neighbors, local businesses and government agencies to join us in the hard work of solving New York’s problems.

Lorie A. Slutsky is president of the New York Community Trust, which funds nonprofits in the city, Long Island and Westchester.

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