CEO Corner: Tony Hannigan, CUCS

CEO Corner: Tony Hannigan, CUCS

August 26, 2015

New York Nonprofit Media sat down with Center for Urban Community Services Founder and CEO Tony Hannigan to discuss his organization's genesis, as well as its influential work with one of New York City's most vulnerable populations: single street homeless New Yorkers. 

The following has been edited for content and clarity.

NYN: It’s really a great, timely moment for you to be here. There’s a lot of discussion in the news about issues that your organization is very active in: homeless services and supportive and transitional housing. It would be really great to get your perspective on those issues and more. But first, let’s talk about CUCS, how it came about and your story in growing this now $40 million, 400 employee organization. 

TH: CUCS is the Center for Urban Community Services. At one time it was Columbia University Community Services in the early 80s until the early 90s; that’s where it originated. When we spun the organization off as an independent nonprofit, people knew us by the acronym. So we had to back into that and find a name for it. That’s how we became the Center for Urban Community Services. It started at the university as an interdisciplinary project among various graduate schools on campus to study the needs of single poor people. The thinking of the time [was] that there was no real body of literature on single, poor people—unlike family and children or the elderly—and not really an understood group. That’s how CUCS in its original form originated, and we started to do service programs to address homelessness. As that started, we made the decision with the university to spin it off as a nonprofit. That was in ’93.

NYN: What do you see as the biggest needs for single, poor people in New York right now? Obviously, it’s still a very marginalized community twenty-plus years later in terms of housing, incarceration, re-entering after being incarcerated and the issues that single people have in pulling their lives back together. How does your organization help this population?

TH: The biggest need that we see and have seen for many years—and this will not be a new word in all these discussions—is housing, affordable housing. People need affordable housing. What CUCS does is really focus on special needs populations among single people. That includes people with mental illness, people with HIV/AIDS, and then also more recently focusing on primary health care issues among those groups. You’re absolutely right. They are a marginalized group very often. When they’re poor, they’re even more marginalized. Services tend not to be geared towards them. Supportive housing, which CUCS was instrumental in bringing to the fore back in the early to late 80s, focused on single people. It was a unique venture. Now single people who are marginalized are often thought of as homeless, and that’s not entirely true. Not all poor people who are single are homeless. In fact, most are not. That’s where we tend to put our attention. 

NYN: So obviously affordable housing is a big conversation right now in city government and in the nonprofit world. What is your organization pushing the government to do on this issue? There’s been a lot of news about three-quarter housing and halfway homes as filling this gap because of a lack of affordable housing for the population that you serve. What do you think the government needs to do to fill this gap?

TH: Since Mario Cuomo and David Dinkins there were agreements called New York/New York. These were agreements between the city and the state to development supportive housing, and New York/New York I was the first round of that. Seeing how successful supportive housing can be with multiple populations—and it started out with single people who were mentally ill—there have been three big rounds of it and now there’s a New York/New York IV, which is a much smaller round. That’s 5,200 units statewide. That’s the first statewide agreement. 

All the other New York/New York agreements were citywide. One agreement was for 9,000 [units], etc. This one is 5,200, and that only will be 3,900 for New York City, which is not adequate. The community I work with, the organizations and advocacy groups, we’re really pushing for a larger New York/New York IV. It’s kind of stuck at this point. The city administration recognized the importance of New York/New York IV. We’re trying to get everybody to the table for that. 

These other initiatives that are going on with inclusionary zoning is important for having a city that’s going to be inclusive and diverse in the full sense of the word. That’s a very important initiative. 

Three-quarters housing is something like a weed that grew. Now you have people who have been living in three-quarter houses for extended periods of time, and for some that’s home. I think what we should be doing there is evaluating conditions in those, and the city has started that, of course. But evaluating those conditions and working with the people who live there to determine where they want to be [is important]. It wouldn’t surprise me if some people are going to want to stay there. If they do then they should be allowed to do that.

NYN: There’s been a lot about homelessness in the news. The Post really went after the de Blasio administration for the ballooning size of the homeless population in New York City. What do you think is missing from the conversation right now? You hear a lot about mental health and affordable housing, but it seems like it’s an intersection of a lot of really tricky issues. What would you like to see more of in the discussion about homelessness? 

TH: Whenever asked a question of what’s missing, homelessness by definition is a lack of a place to live. We have to have places for people to live. We’ve had the street counts, and I know the Post has been very critical of those for years now. They’re not perfect as the Post pointed out. It was 25 degrees during the last count. These are national efforts that HUD really pulls together. At least each year we are comparing apples to apples. 

In the past count we’ve seen the reduction in New York City—except that we did not see one in Manhattan—essentially a 5 percent reduction in street homelessness. We’ve been seeing a reduction in street homelessness in recent years. Part of that has to do with redoing the way outreach teams—and CUCS has an outreach team—but redoing it citywide, starting in 2007. The focus is on chronically homeless people. It’s determining who’s chronically homeless. There’s a vulnerability index that we use that goes to length of time, homeless problems that the person has that get priority. 

Now why all this focus? I think part of it is there’s invisibility about homelessness. The press about them is making people see them again. There’s that effect. There may be differences in the way the administrations previous and this administration handles encampments … where homeless people congregate.  There are different police commissioners and a different mayor. Whether or not there are more homeless people on the street, you could look at the variables and say perhaps—if you compare the census at Riker’s this year to last year—it’s down about 10 percent. There’s a big overlap between people who are in shelters and on the street and people at Riker’s. There are these variables of different streams that come in. 

As a person who works with homeless people and has done this for thirty years, I would like to see the goal of ending street homelessness, having functional zero. There’s always going to be some people who are homeless but the numbers say that right now at the last count there are about 3,200 people living on the streets. It seems doable. 

Those are people who are not going to stay in three-quarters houses. They’re not going to stay in the shelter. We may not be able to achieve it but in the long range it seems to me that that would be an aspirational goal, to have that kind of an impact. The reason I think its possible is during the tenure of one Commissioner Rob Hess—he was very interested in street homelessness. He came from Philadelphia were he was in charge of homeless services. He’s the one who really led the reformation in the way street homeless ness [outreach] was done, focusing on chronically homeless, but what he also introduced was this—safe havens. Safe havens are transitional residences located in the community. It could be as simple as a YMCA. 

Now outreach teams get money for this, and if you were homeless I would say to you, “I’ll rent you a room at the Y.” You might say, “What’s that about?” “There are no strings attached. We will rent you a room at the Y.” What follows that is befriending that individual, learning about them, and of course, trying to get them on the path towards permanent housing. That particular intervention was very affective in helping street outreach teams to do their work and its better for everybody. It’s better for the person not on the street anymore. It’s better for the general public, and its better for tourism. I think that would be an admirable goal.

NYN: We were joking about the distinction between mid-size and large-size nonprofits. By any measure, [you run] quite a large organization—400 employees and a large budget. What is your perspective on leading that size of an organization and also navigating the tricky relationship at times between state and city government, contracts and foundation funding?

TH: When I got into doing this, I sort of got into social work. It was serendipitous that I got into social work. I grew up in a New York City housing project, so I came kind of pre-packaged with sensitiveness about the issues that low-income people face. For numerous years, I was very close to the action in terms of working with people. 

Running something of this size, it’s like being captain of a big boat. You can’t wind up on the shoals, and you have to understand where the bay is deep and where it’s not. I really enjoy the work. I enjoy working with government. I think CUCS has very good relationships with government, because we do a good job and similarly with foundations. Some have called us the gold standard of homeless services and mental health services for this population. We’re very proud of that. 

Most important, I have such a terrific staff. I’ve been with CUCS since [when it was] Columbia, but many of CUCS staff—our chief operating officer has been with us for 25 years. Our deputy executive director has been with us for 25 years. Our chief program officer has been with us for that many years as well. The list goes on. We have stuck together as a team.

Jeff Stein