Connecting vulnerable Long Islanders to stable housing and specialized care

An Interview with Options for Community Living CEO Yolanda Robano-Gross

Yolanda Robano-Gross is the CEO of Options for Community Living

Yolanda Robano-Gross is the CEO of Options for Community Living (Image courtesy of OCL)

For many, Long Island conjures images of sprawling coastal estates – or at least snug middle-class communities like Levittown. But the 118-mile-long land mass is more racially and economically diverse than many know, with roughly 6% of its residents living in poverty and more than 3,500 of them experiencing homelessness – more than 1,100 of them under the age of 18. For more than 40 years, the nonprofit Options for Community Living – which began to serve people with mental illness but expanded to also serve people with HIV/AIDS – has been aiding vulnerable Long Islanders, connecting them to high-quality housing with wraparound services and also managing their often complex health needs. The agency's website says that it serves more than 2,400 children and adults annually and manages more than 160 residential properties (many of which it owns) across both Nassau and Suffolk Counties. 

New York Nonprofit Media chatted with Yolanda Robano-Gross, the agency's CEO since 2014, about the details of her work.

Thank you for chatting today, Yolanda. Can you start by painting a true picture of Long Island?

Sure. I was born and raised on the south shore of Nassau County so I know Long Island pretty well. Some people see an entitled, privileged picture when they think of Long Island, but we're pretty diverse in terms of race, education, and nationality. We have quite a span of economic levels. There is more public transit in Nassau, which is closer to New York City, than Suffolk – the further out you go, the harder it is to get around if you don't have a car. And nobody realizes that we have thousands of individuals who are unhoused. About one in five Long Islanders have a mental health diagnosis. And most Long Islanders are just four to six paychecks away from being at risk for losing their housing.

Tell us how Options for Community Living addresses these stats.

We provide housing, case management, care coordination and financial assistance programs to individuals with chronic physical and mental illnesses. Our three major target populations are those with mental illness, those living with HIV/AIDS and those who are unhoused or at risk of homelessness. And those three groups absolutely overlap. We have a Housing First ethic. If you don't know where you're placing your head at night, you're not going to be bothering with anything else, like your health. When you come in our door, it may be for one thing, but we'll try to make sure your other needs get met – if not by us than by our sister organizations. Long Island nonprofits are good at working as a community.

What was your path to becoming CEO in 2014?

I graduated from Marist in 1990, then went to Yeshiva to get my masters of social work. I was actually planning to teach high school English and run a theater program, but I took an introduction to social work class with an awesome teacher and that changed my mind. I liked the idea of working with different communities. I went to work for Montefiore in the Bronx as a social worker, where eventually my boss told me to get my masters in health administration, so I went to Hofstra for that. When I got out, I still had no administrative experience, so an awesome woman at United Cerebral Palsy Associations of New York State offered me the opportunity to direct three of her clinics for individuals with intellectual disabilities. She took a chance on me and I fell in love with that world, to have the privilege of helping someone's child, spouse or sibling. I have a daughter about to graduate college, and she's stable, but if she weren't, what kind of services would I want her to have? To be treated with dignity and respect, and to help her be as independent as possible. It's not rocket science.

What do you think your best skills are? 

I wish I'd learned to delegate. I'm not good at that. I've definitely learned to be a radical listener. I also have a really good feel for taking people who are new to the field and seeing what their passion and path is. I have a staffer whose passion is voter registration, so we let him run with a grant we got looking to get x number of people registered. I have another staffer who was just certified in yoga and meditation who asked if they could lead a wellness session for the rest of the staff, and I said, "Yeah, go for it."

Would you like to be a better delegator?

Yes. I'm an only child, so I come from that "I can do it myself" mentality, but there's only so many hours in the day – and you also have to allow the people around you to grow. I have alternating weekly meetings with my seven directors and 21 managers.

Can you tell us some stories of clients that bring to life the work you do?

We have a client who recently passed. She was one of our unhoused clients for years. We heard that one Thanksgiving, I think the year before COVID, was going to be historically bitter cold and people needed to get off the street, so we finally talked her into coming into housing. She said she'd intended to step into the middle of Hempstead Turnpike, but then she thought about how that would affect the person who hit her – that's why she didn't do it. So she came to live in one of our supportive housing sites – which is usually two or three people sharing a single-family house, which we often own. She ended up introducing me and my team to a lot of other people who were in need of services. She had such a productive life in the time that she lived with us. I took her to speak over at the JCC in Cedarhurst. 

I have a young woman who lives with her boyfriend now at one of our sites. She was a licensed social worker who had a bad break psychiatrically, but we supported her and she's a full-time social worker again. And I remember once moving a mother and her two teenage kids into a real home after they'd been in a shelter for five years. One of the kids said, "Wow, I have my own key – I can lock my own door." Think of being in a shelter for five years with no privacy – nothing to lock and nothing that you own.

Another client, he and his partner were street homeless for 21 years, refusing housing. Then he got sick, so they wanted housing. A couple Tuesdays ago when we had a flash snowstorm, he called me and said, "I just wanted to tell you that it's much nicer to see the snow from inside than outside." Those are the best days – when, even if things are going crazy, you're like, "Okay, that's why I'm here."

What is a typical day like for you?

I get up at 5:10 a.m. to get to my 6:05 a.m. class at OrangeTheory [Fitness], then I get ready there and am at my desk by about 8:30 a.m. Just looking at today's calendar, literally from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. I have back-to-back meetings, everything from staffing issues to my directors' meeting. We are in the final steps of choosing our first DEIB (diversity/equity/inclusion/belonging) manager – that's exciting. Also our big fundraising event, an 80s-themed murder mystery night, is coming up April 13. After this interview, I have two other meetings. I'm typically here until five. 

Do you make a point of getting up during the day and walking and/or getting a proper lunch?

Usually, no. I try to do the loop of our large office and say hi to everyone in the morning. But I eat at my desk. 

What about evenings?

Tuesdays I bowl with a couple of my girlfriends even though I'm bad at bowling. Thursday is my Kiwanis Club meeting. Tonight I'm going to help two of my friends with their kids' FAFSA forms. My daughter was just home for spring break, which was awesome. My fiancé would definitely like me to have more down time!

Tell us a little more about what goes into identifying housing for your clients and then getting them into it.

Most of our sites are three-bedroom single homes. They'll be on your block and nobody knows [they are housing clients with special needs] because they look just like any other house. A lot of the homes we buy, but some we rent. Typically, clients will pay no more than 30% of their income. We just got a grant for a brand-new program for young adults, which is really cool because the kids served are 18 to 25 – an age at which they can get lost in the shuffle. Like most 18-year-olds, they don't have the skill set to live independently, or they don't have family support, and will end up on the street, using drugs or in trouble. So these kids can come out of, say, the foster system, and they can come into this program where they'll have a peer group and get vocational training or a job. So we're looking for those houses now – we're going to get 30 kids, so we'll need about 15 houses.

What are one or two of the biggest structural challenges to your work? For example, in New York City, nonprofits often say it's the slowness of getting reimbursed by the city, which can really put the financial squeeze on them, or they'll say it's the city's slowness in getting people housing vouchers, or how little they enforce making landlords accept the vouchers.

We have the same issue with the speed of government reimbursement. Also, housing availability on Long Island is tough – there's not enough inventory to meet the need. We also have lots of NIMBYism. Everyone likes the idea of helping people get off the street – they just don’t want it in their own neighborhood. Also, staffing is a challenge. We need to have the powers-that-be increase our reimbursables because we need to be able to pay staff a living wage so they can afford to live on Long Island. Right now they can make as much at McDonald's or Target as they can working here with individuals in crisis. Eventually people in this field can get their income to a good level, but if we can't get them in the door at an income they can live on in the first place, then who's going to run these organizations after we go?

A related issue to that is racial diversity of staff. Is yours? The photos I saw online looked mostly white.

Those pictures are mainly of me and my seven directors. We have a staff of 260 that is pretty diverse. But part of the job of the DEIB person is to make sure the pathways up to this level are free of any barriers, so we can eventually have a more diverse team of managers and directors. We have a program where you can shadow someone and see if you want to get on that path of the work they do. And every open position is posted internally first. 

Have you had the discussion many workplaces are having about maybe loosening degree requirements for some positions?

Certain roles require that you have an LMSW. But yes, like with entry-level positions, we've considered that maybe you don't need a bachelor's if you have some sort of practical experience. And practical experience can mean a lot of things. We have someone who's been with us five years and still doesn't have a degree, but when she interviewed, she told us that she was raised by a mom with bipolar disorder. So there's twenty-odd years of hands-on experience right there.

Dream aloud a moment about the next few years. What would you do if money were no object?

I would love to take this small pilot program we're starting for people ages 18-25 and blow it up to the point where we could walk these kids into some serious vocational training and see those outcomes. I'd also like to be able to offer more housing to couples, which funding streams don't allow for as much as they do for families with children or individuals. I might be able to house someone because they have x diagnosis, but they can't bring their spouse with them if the spouse doesn't have a diagnosis, too. 

More broadly, I wish societal attitudes would change. No one ever asks to have COPD or diabetes. It's the same with schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or HIV. My big dream is for people to look at them the same way, to normalize those conditions. I wish people would be more kind. A few nice words can keep someone from making a bad decision that day. So if someone on the street makes eye contact with you, don't turn your head. Ask them how their day is going. You may get a long-winded reply but most will thank you for asking. I once went to shake this man's hand and he flinched. I said, "I'm sorry." He said, "Oh, no. It's just that I'm homeless and it's been a long time since someone shook my hand."

So shake someone's hand and say hello. Don't look away!