Reintegration & Recovery >> Independent Living
Weston United Community Renewal
Helping the Mentally Ill and Homeless in Harlem Find a Home
The numbers are stunning and sobering – almost 40,000 homeless individuals currently sleep each night in the New York City shelter system – and these figures do not include the thousands more who sleep on the street, including subway trains and park benches. Additionally, nearly three-quarters of individuals sleeping on the street and approximately half of those in the shelter system are mentally ill.
Enter Weston United Community Renewal, a not-for-profit organization that has been meeting the needs of the mentally ill and homeless in Harlem since it began its work two decades ago. Its award-winning programs, and in particular its housing programs, have been gaining widespread recognition ever since.
And that recognition is well deserved. Over the years, under the capable leadership of its executive director, Jean Newburg, Weston United has fought an uphill battle to overcome stigma, bureaucratic red tape and community resistance to build a special-needs housing program that is a model for other supported housing programs throughout the nation.
Weston United was born out of a desire to help a community that was struggling with many social ills, including poverty, crime, unemployment, drug addiction – this was Harlem in the late seventies and early eighties. Crack cocaine had decimated many families, and drug pushers roamed the streets dealing drugs in full view of everyone. Gun violence was at an all-time high. Community leaders from St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and Harlem Hospital decided to step in.
St. Philip’s had a tradition of serving Harlem’s neediest since 1945 when Reverend Shelton Hale Bishop established the first-ever mental health clinic to serve African Americans exclusively. It was named the La Fargue Clinic and directed by Dr. Frederic Wertham, a contemporary of Sigmund Freud. The clinic was staffed with volunteers and psychiatrists who saw patients in the church undercroft for 25 cents a session. One of those volunteers was Reverend Bishop’s daughter, who went on to become a prominent New York City psychiatrist at Harlem hospital, the first African-American woman ever to become a Chief of Psychiatry. Her name was Dr. Elizabeth Bishop Davis.
Seeing that the needs of the mentally ill in Harlem stretched far beyond the need for medical treatment, Dr. Bishop approached the next rector at St. Phillips Church, Reverend M. Moran Weston, Ph.D., with a proposal to provide housing for patients after they were discharged from hospital. In 1979, the two formed a not-for-profit board and applied to the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for assistance. Six years later – in 1985 – Bishop House was opened and Weston United Community Renewal was born.
The very fact that Bishop House was six years in gestation is a prime example of just how difficult providing special needs housing could be – even in a community that desperately needed it. Jean Newburg explained, “It took many years before Bishop House was built because of government and community opposition. HUD initially refused permission to build on the site because of their impression of Harlem as blighted and drug-infested, and the community-at-large in those days really denigrated the mentally ill, so it was the NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) issue as well.”
“We really owe a great deal to the community leaders and volunteers who stepped forward to help,” Newburg continued. “Mr. Courtney Brown, for example, a social worker with the NYS Division of Human Rights and a board member, took upon himself the responsibility to convince HUD that Harlem, in spite of the many social ills that plagued the neighborhood, possessed a rich culture and many stabilizing influences. Langston Hughes lived around the corner from the proposed Bishop House site, and there were also three small churches on the block. In the end, our arguments were persuasive enough to convince HUD to proceed with the construction.”
Weston United’s housing program has grown by leaps and bounds since then. Today, the organization runs supported, transitional, licensed and permanent housing facilities for the mentally ill throughout Harlem, including Bishop House, Weston House, Casa Renacer and Weston Transitional Living Community.
Weston United also administers a Community Focus Program, which helps individuals and families with special needs to find and maintain housing in the neighborhood of their choosing.
Creating Partnerships For Success
The cost of establishing housing programs, such as this one, cannot be underestimated. New York City is one of the most heavily populated cities in the United States, and housing is a financial strain on lower income individuals and families, especially when individuals are unable to work because of mental illness. One of the most important aspects of ensuring success in the Weston United housing program was making sure that a steady stream of capital was available. Weston United has therefore made it a point to work very closely with government organizations, such as US Department of Housing and Urban Development, NYS Office of Mental Health, NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, NYC Department of Homeless Services and the NYC Human Resources Administration, to keep the spigot open and flowing. The organization’s success is clearly demonstrated by the fact that to date it has been able to secure over $12 million in annual grants from various city, state and federal agencies.
Raising this kind of capital is no easy task – it requires extensive knowledge of the government agencies that are targeted, as well as compiling numerous fundraising and grant proposals, but Jean Newburg has a simple formula. “Good working relationships are paramount,” she says. “You have to partner with these organizations and work within their parameters. You also have to demonstrate that you have the skills and capacity to undertake these kinds of projects and do it successfully. We are proud that the government has been so supportive of us.”
Weston United has also worked closely with other agencies and stakeholders that have an interest in its housing programs. Their Chief Program Officer, Patricia Bacchus, is their “ambassador of good will” to local community groups. These efforts in at least one instance were applauded in an article in the New York Observer, which highlighted Community Board 9 in Manhattanville’s fight against social service organizations locating transitional and supported housing facilities in their neighborhood. In an uncharacteristic move, the board voted to approve Weston United’s proposal to lease a building in its neighborhood. One member of the committee was even quoted as saying, “A lot of institutions don’t have the courtesy (to ask for permission). They do their thing and we find out about it after – that almost guarantees opposition. Weston United’s positive track record, and the fact that it sought the Board’s approval, even though it was not required, contributed to the committee’s decision.”
Overcoming Stigma By Positive Example
Twenty years ago, and before the era of political correctness, people with mental illnesses were considered outcasts and shunned. Many people were still of the opinion that individuals with mental illnesses belonged in an institution, complete with bars on the widows and doors. Mentally ill people living in their community was cause for deep concern among many Harlem residents. The NIMBY issue, as Jean Newburg pointed out, is historically an obstacle to be overcome – and remains so today.
Experience, of course, is the greatest teacher, and the Harlem community soon learned that they had nothing to fear from these individuals with mental illnesses. Weston United takes pains to ensure that its buildings, including the residents, are always well kept and clean. Residents move about the neighborhood and interact with their neighbors without incident. Weston United has also formed solid working relationships with the neighborhood police department – more in an effort to protect its residents from harm than the other way around.
Weston United’s work with the mentally ill and homeless has resulted in many awards, including an Eli Lilly Reintegration Award in 2002 and awards for excellence from New York State. Many of New York’s eminent politicians have heaped accolades on the organization including Congressman Charles Rangel, State Assemblyman Keith Wright, Borough President C. Virginia Fields, and City Councilwoman Margerita Lopez. The organization has also showcased its model programs across the USA and Europe. But in spite of the program’s success there is still work to be done. “We would very much like to expand our program to other parts of the city,” said Jean Newburg. “This is something that we are actively looking into.” There is no doubt, though, that Weston United has contributed significantly to the transformation of Harlem by transforming the lives of the hundreds of mentally ill and homeless people. They have been fortunate indeed to have this organization on their side, helping them to reintegrate by finding a home and ultimately a place in society.
To see pictures of Weston United's permanent housing facility, Casa Renacer, click here.