‘They’re reaching people person-to-person’
Amid COVID-19, Project Hospitality’s outreach team brings NYC Care to the doorsteps of Staten Islanders who need it most
Each year on Oct. 29, Staten Islanders meet on Midland Beach at dusk to honor the 24 lives that were lost when Hurricane Sandy struck the borough in 2012. This year, the list of community members to mourn grew by 1,000—the Staten Islanders who had died from COVID-19 since March 2020.
From Reverend Karen Jackson’s perspective, the similarities between the two crises are stark.
“Whether it’s Superstorm Sandy or a global pandemic, the people who were already vulnerable because of the ongoing economic injustices in this city are the ones who are going to suffer most when disaster strikes,” she said.
Rev. Jackson knows all too well what need looks like in her community. When Sandy hit back in 2012, she had just begun her role as the director of community initiatives at Project Hospitality, an interfaith community-based organization (CBO) serving vulnerable Staten Islanders for more than 30 years. She spent her first few months on the job attending to a vast and urgent array of needs—hunger, joblessness, substance use fueled by anxiety and despair, and an overwhelming lack of secure and affordable housing.
“The experiences of 2012 are repeating, but this time with a health crisis,” she said.
“The outreach team is on the street and they’re essentially doing wellness checks in and among the general population in the languages that they speak. It’s a way that we’re able to reach people who don’t have access to broadband internet, who don’t speak English, who don’t use the traditional channels of communication the City utilizes to reach people.”
The health of Staten Islanders has been a focus of Project Hospitality’s work since its inception in 1982, with the organization acting as the trusted link to mental health resources, chemical dependency treatment, and HIV care for individuals experiencing homelessness and other vulnerabilities. But in 2020, addressing the inequities in access to healthcare for Black and Brown communities became even more integral to the organization’s mission.
Just two months before the pandemic hit New York City, Project Hospitality was selected as one of two CBOs on the island to conduct culturally responsive outreach to Staten Islanders about NYC Care, a healthcare access program operated by NYC Health + Hospitals (H+H) for New Yorkers who are not eligible for insurance or who cannot afford it. The program is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive initiative to guarantee healthcare for all New Yorkers, regardless of immigration status or ability to pay. Members have access to healthcare at H+H patient care locations across the city where they can receive preventive care such as vaccinations, routine screenings, and mammograms, as well as mental health support, substance use services, and low-cost prescription medications, among other resources.
Reverend Karen Jackson explains how her program serves as a front door to help community members connect with services available to them.
“The outreach team is on the street and they’re essentially doing wellness checks in and among the general population in the languages that they speak,” Rev. Jackson said. “It’s a way that we’re able to reach people who don’t have access to broadband internet, who don’t speak English, who don’t use the traditional channels of communication the City utilizes to reach people.”
Funded through a partnership between the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, and H+H, select CBOs across the five boroughs are conducting outreach efforts in 20 languages including Spanish, Russian, Haitian Creole, Polish, Mandarin, Cantonese, and Arabic. And, like Project Hospitality, each of the participating CBOs has deep ties and a longstanding history of being a trusted service provider in the communities they serve.
“Even in a healthcare system that is designed to be friendly to people who don’t have insurance, the language barriers are still there,” Rev. Jackson said. “It really requires you to have an advocate by your side calling on your behalf who you trust and who knows how to navigate the system.”
In the Port Richmond area of Staten Island—one of the neighborhoods in which Project Hospitality concentrates their outreach efforts—Spanish-speaking Staten Islanders from Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, and Guatemala have found a tireless advocate in Nayeli Soto. A Mexican immigrant herself, Soto has been working with Project Hospitality for almost six years.
“If I speak your language and you see me around your neighborhood, there’s an instant familiarity. That’s the first step toward building trust.”
When NYC Care launched in Staten Island in January 2020, it quickly became one of the most-used tools in Soto’s toolbelt. Now, a client who might come to the Project Hospitality Help Center looking for food, shelter, or other emergency services, can be connected to healthcare resources that had long been out of reach. Clients who hadn’t received a routine physical in five or 10 years, or who were living with untreated illnesses or conditions now had access to life-saving medications, medical procedures, and preventive care offered through H+H facilities.
The challenge, Soto said, is that beyond the walk-in clients and those already engaged in services that Project Hospitality offers, the vast majority of Staten Islanders who would benefit from NYC Care are unaware that it exists. Reaching them requires not just speaking the same verbal language, but understanding the cultural languages and how best to engage them in their communities.
“If I speak your language and you see me around your neighborhood, there’s an instant familiarity,” Soto said. “That’s the first step toward building trust.”
Alongside Soto—who spends most of her work days on the phone or at her computer helping her clients navigate the H+H system—is a street outreach team. Originally tasked with engaging residents around NYC Care, the roles of the outreach workers took on a new meaning after COVID-19 came to the island. Now the NYC Care information flyers they distribute to community members are wrapped around a box of N-95 masks.
“They’re reaching people person-to-person just asking them, ‘Are you ok? Are people in your household sick? Are you suffering the impacts of COVID in any way? What are your needs?’” Rev. Jackson said.
COVID-19 and NYC Care have become inextricably linked in many ways, as the communities suffering the most from the pandemic are Black and Brown New Yorkers and those with limited or no access to healthcare.
“Not only do people need access to the preventive healthcare services and ongoing services that NYC Care provides, but because of the pandemic the needs that people have are only able to be met by comprehensive social service providers like us,” Rev. Jackson said. “CBOs are often the first to see the gaps in care.”
Soto said she has seen an influx of clients coming to her, wanting to address minor or long-ignored health concerns, and eagerly taking advantage of NYC Care when they become aware of it. As the pandemic continues in their communities, they know having pre-existing conditions could be a death sentence if they were to get sick with COVID-19.
For Rev. Jackson’s part, she is ensuring the services offered through Project Hospitality continue to meet any and all of the needs of the community, whether it’s serving hundreds of meals per day through the food pantry run by the organization or providing rental and cash assistance for dozens of undocumented families facing eviction in the pandemic.
“Whatever needs we discover in this ongoing process of building relationships, someone is right here to help you,” she said. “It’s about serving people with compassion and respecting their dignity and autonomy.”