A mayor of a local city delivered a “state of the city” address earlier this year that focused on building a “compassionate community” that challenged citizens, business leaders, and elected officials to sign on to pledge to “commit to making a difference.” To sign the “compassionate charter,” one had to pledge to assist the homeless or impoverished, work to create jobs through innovation, support seniors, children, and artists, and promote “safety for women in all aspects of their lives.” In the same speech the mayor vowed to bring a safe injection site to the city to deal with its burgeoning opioid crisis to a wave of applause. This city was not Buffalo, but St. Catharines, Ontario.
Every year, a group of social justice bootstrappers called the “Niagara County Coalition of Services to the Homeless” throw together a one-day conference for service providers to hear new ideas, and “kind of recharge the batteries,” in the words of Christian Hoffman.
Hoffman is the communications director for Community Missions in the Falls, a sprawling agency that originated during the peak of Niagara Falls’ industrialization to serve growing numbers of homeless and has grown into something much larger that offers an array of basic needs and mental health services. “I like to say if we were in Erie County we probably would be 10 different organizations,” Hoffman told us.
The conference that Hoffman and company have organized this year carries the theme of “compassionate communities,” which has become a hallmark of St. Catharines Mayor Walter Sendzik’s platform. Sendzik will be providing the conference with its keynote address at the Sixth Annual Niagara County Poverty Conference on March 7 at Niagara University.
We talked with Hoffman about services in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, and what compassionate communities rally means.
Tell us about the conference. How did this come about?
We did a deep dive a few years ago to understand exactly what we wanted to do with this conference, and so there was kind of some back and forth as to whether this conference was really for the agencies and organizations working in poverty and homelessness, or whether we were going to be serving different kind of populations of people that are actually within poverty and homelessness themselves, or focus it on government as an advocacy thing for government to see. What we kind of arrived at is a solutions-focused conference for the agencies and organizations that we’re working with within these areas.
Last year we brought in speakers with from a group called ideas42—they had done a white paper about integrating behavioral science into social services agencies—and what are some little tweaks people can make and also what are the systemic changes. For example, how can intake forms be written so that anybody could be able to read it, even with a much lower reading level them what intake forms might currently be at Social Services. How can we best serve people who are working poor? Can we offer evening hours that is kind of unaccustomed to having people working late, but that is the best way to serve some of our clients. So that was last year: What are some kind of tweaks things that we could do better.
And this year: compassionate communities?
Right, in particular bringing in the mayor of St. Catharines, Ontario. This is one of his platforms: making the city more compassionate. And so we were on a conference call with him kind of exploring what he would be talking about and he brought up some really interesting points. When they launched this compassionate city campaign, he was anticipating it taking two years or so for it to really filter into the culture of the city. And so it was about six months after they had really done their initial push of how can we be more compassionate looking at all factors of the city and life to be more compassionate to our people who are kind of living on the margins. On the local news there was a takedown of a sex-trafficking ring in St. Catharines. The optics were not good, as it turned out; the police were there and putting the sex workers themselves in the back of police cars, and the mayor started getting calls complaining that these people may be sex trafficking victims and not the criminals the media was portraying them as. As it turns out, they were victims and police were taking them for treatment as such, but the mayor was encouraged by the response. You know, wow, it only took six months for people to kind of realize and start to get it that there is a compassionate way to do it. That would be wonderful, especially in today’s political climate. How can the Falls, Niagara County, be more compassionate? And what are some ways, some really practical ways, for that to quickly happen.
Can you think of any examples in the last few months of where a community response to an event it could be better informed by compassionate community model?
Certainly looking at the shooting in Florida, there is a tremendous amount of compassion, I think, for the teenagers. But from our vantage point it’s always interesting to look at the mental health piece of it: that obviously this young man and most of the shooters we will see, you know, have that mental health diagnosis, or something is obviously going on mental health-wise. It’s very easy to demonize that person, that stigma—that we feel is certainly decreasing—of not wanting to open up and not talk about depression or whatever mental illness or mental health episode that might be going on for somebody. Each time that there is a shooting or something in the news that is negative towards mental health, it is easy to see on social media and in other places people demonizing mental illness. And that definitely might make it harder for someone who is battling with those things to even consider talking to Mom, Dad, whatever it is, a counselor about that.
How are things going for Community Missions? What kind of changes are you seeing in the community you serve?
The one that’s most fascinating for us, and may be interesting to follow back up on three to four months from now, is the amount of food assistance we’re offering is way up.
When I started When I started here five years ago, typically we would serve around 75,000 meals between all the different programs. Then a couple years ago we went from 77,000 to 88,000, and I believe it was 89,000 in 2016. It was more than we’ve ever seen, but it was a steady increase. However in 2017, we went from 89,000 meals to 109,000 meals this past year, which is just massive jump. So our food pantry number has gone from about 41,000 meals to 61,000 meals, a 49 percent jump in just one year, which is just literally unbelievable. So the reason we want to follow up in a few months is we’re having some students come in from Niagara University in April. They’re going to be administering surveys to try to get a good sense as to what in the world happened in one year’s time where we had a 50 percent increase.
There’s been a pretty intense focus on housing in Buffalo, with fewer public housing units available and the ones that are available often have major issues going on and meanwhile rents are higher than social services is able to pay to keep families out of homelessness. Is it any different in Niagara County?
I tell you what I’m on the board of an organization (Family Promise of WNY) that works with family homelessness in Buffalo, and that is the number one thing right now. All the $500-$600 a month apartments are being torn down to make $1,500 apartments. So that is what we’re dealing with constantly in Buffalo. We serve three families at a time, so it’s pretty intensive case management and we’ve had considerably longer length of stay with us this year than we ever had in the past just because social services is only paying $600 typically to find an apartment for a family or four or five, and it just doesn’t exist. Not anywhere that families want to go. But in Niagara County? We’ve been there. This has been the case. The supply and demand is just not where it should be basically, but the landlord is willing to do really some awful things to get rid of people that they just don’t want to deal with.