Unique People Services: Supporting the disenfranchised
In the Bronx, six out of 10 residents earn less than the median household income and struggle to pay rent. Bronx-based Unique People Services (UPS), which has been at the forefront of identifying ways to combat and decrease this statistic, is celebrating its 25th anniversary of providing housing and support services to individuals in critical need of shelter.
With a staff of 240 and a budget of $22 million, every year UPS serves over 1,000 formerly homeless individuals in the Bronx, Manhattan, Queens, Brooklyn and Westchester as it strives to fulfill its mission to serve those who may “have been denied compassionate and considerate treatment elsewhere.”
The late Lynn Wonsang founded UPS following a distinguished career at Brooklyn’s Services for the Underserved. She sought to carve out a space for New Yorkers who ‘fell through the cracks of society’ and established the organization in the Bronx as a safe haven with a mission of inclusiveness.
UPS provides shelter, food and counseling for formerly homeless individuals often struggling with health challenges. Its Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program serves over 200 clients, while its day habilitation programs offer a host of activities to those with physical disabilities. It operates 24 housing programs in four boroughs plus Westchester.
“As New York rent has become unaffordable and homelessness has increased, Unique People Services works to provide a beam of light for those in need,” said Yvette Brissett-André, who has served as executive director since 2008. She also serves as an alumna of the National Urban Fellows Program and is a member of the Fortune Society’s executive team. Last July SmartCEO honored Brissett-André with its Brava award for outstanding nonprofit management.
“Yvette is such an inspiring leader,” said newly appointed Chairwoman Crystal E. Jackson, senior vice president of Citibank’s Nonprofit Services Group. Jackson, an alumna of the National Urban Fellow program, was selected by The Network Journal as one its “40 Under 40” for 2016. “She brings so much creative energy to the position and leads by example,” Jackson said.
Looking ahead, Brissett-André and her team are focused on the launch of two major housing projects expected to come to fruition in 2017. One development with the working title of New Crown will replace the current Crown Residence, a midtown shelter that was forced to close after the property owner sold the building. “Losing that program was challenging, although not surprising in light of real estate values nowadays,” Brissett-André said. “We are grateful to be able to reopen in a new location thanks to new funding.”
The next jewel in the UPS crown is Lynn’s Place, the agency’s first affordable housing complex, which was co-developed with Robert Sanborn Development and designed by Urban Architectural Initiatives. Named for the organization’s founder, the development will include 69 mixed-use units, 42 of which will be allocated to formerly homeless individuals with mental illness, and will include on-site support services, a sunken courtyard and a multipurpose meeting room.
“Watching this project come to life is fantastic because it’s so true to Lynn’s vision,” said Brissett-André.
Lynn’s Place is funded by the city Department of Housing and Development, the Community Preservation Corporation, the state Office of Mental Health, New York City Council Reso “A” funds, the Corporation for Supportive Housing, Hudson Housing, and Capital and Deutsche Banks. Groundbreaking took place last December with New York City first lady Chirlane McCray, Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and other city officials in attendance.
As agreed, the contractors are hiring local workers, and construction is on track. “The timing worked out so well since Lynn’s Place falls in line with the mayor’s initiative,” said Brissett-André. She is grateful for the deep support for the project especially “from the City Council, Community Board 2, and Dr. Ian S. Amritt of Unitas. All these factors were instrumental in making our dream a reality.”
While the forecast for 2017 looks bright thanks to New Crown and Lynn’s Place, Brissett-André is anticipating the impact of the upcoming minimum wage increase. Clearly, the increase in costs will present a challenge. But if she had a magic wand, Brissett-André remarked, “I would reward the individuals who work two shifts a day and give so much of themselves to enable our programs.”
She is hopeful that government will step in to cover the increase, but she is also exploring new ways of raising funds to meet the challenge. “Already a newly hired grant writer has made a difference and we are seeing good results,” she said.
As it celebrates its 25th year on Oct. 20, the UPS gala committee chose to honor and celebrate six individuals who represent different facets of the organization. Among them is one of the Day Habilitation individuals Chantae Jones, who has blossomed into a confident person with life goals, according to the dedicated staff who have watched her transformation.
“The success of UPS is due to the quality of service we offer to each individual,” Brissett-André said. “It’s about helping each individual to identify goals and then helping them to achieve them, whether it’s a person previously resistant to getting help who goes back to school or an individual with a disability who gets a job and gains more independence.”
Getting to know the individuals in its programs is the agency’s number one priority, according to Brissett-André. To remain accessible and make sure all their needs are met, she has posted her cell phone number in all the UPS residences. “It is my duty to know everyone who comes through our doors,” she said. “On holidays I pop into the centers and enjoy a meal with clients.”
And does she receive a lot of calls from clients? “You bet I do,” she said with a smile.