By Carla Rabinowitz, Advocacy Coordinator at Community Access and Nicole Bramstedt, former Director of Policy at Urban Pathways
Another Effort to Empower Individuals in Their Own Communities
The Supportive Housing approach recognizes the inherent dignity in all people. Low-income tenants and people with mental health conditions who were formerly homeless are offered an affordable apartment combined with voluntary supports and services that can help increase self-determination. As the Supportive Housing model grows in New York and the country, tenant engagement and empowerment is recognized as a factor in maintaining secure and thriving residences.
Tenant Advisory Groups are a promising initiative taking hold in New York City Supportive Housing, and may be a new scalable approach to encouraging self-advocacy and recovery. In Tenant Advisory Groups, tenants meet to exchange experiences, propose solutions and initiatives, and provide feedback to management regarding issues in their residence. This setting encourages tenants to advocate for their needs and collaborate on meaningful decisions about their home-life and community. Creating an advisory relationship between tenants and staff also builds trust and mutuality, which can be an important foundation for people as they recover from the disempowerment they experienced while homeless. In addition, it strengthens tenants’ communication and leadership skills, as well as relationships with neighbors and community members.
Community Access, a 44-year-old nonprofit that empowers mental health recipients by providing quality housing and employment services, created a tenant advisory council known as the Program Participant Advisory Group (PPAG) over four years ago. One of the first in New York City, the tenants in this Advisory Group designed several initiatives including a program that offers small grants to tenant applicants trying to regain employment. Grant awardees have completed courses in such skills as massage therapy and medical billing, and have obtained licenses and certificates for commercial driving, food handling, and more. PPAG also supports the agency in quality assurance by helping administer the client satisfaction surveys for Community Access, which helps ensure tenants completing the surveys feel free to express their anonymous concerns. Community Access’ PPAG also initiated a monthly karaoke event. PPAG brings their own karaoke equipment to a different Community Access building each month and facilitates an event where tenants and staff share songs and build community. While people are there, information about other events and community resources are shared. Tenants travel from all over the city to different buildings, getting to know new neighborhoods and meet other tenants. These are some of the most well attended events in the agency, in part because they were started and are run by the tenants themselves.
Urban Pathways—a 43-year-old social services and supportive housing provider for homeless single adults in the New York metropolitan area—also has robust tenant advisory group efforts. Each transitional and permanent housing residence holds a regularly occurring self-advocacy group where individuals address issues in the residence and improve their self-advocacy skills. In addition, Urban Pathways holds a twice-monthly Thursday night issue-based advocacy group for current and former clients to become better issue-based advocates. Recent speakers include the Deputy Chief of Staff to City Council Speaker Corey Johnson as well as the Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff to New York State Assembly Member Andrew Hevesi on the role of the city and state governments in advocacy.
A Tenant Advisory Group not only helps Supportive Housing tenants, however; the approach also enhances the residence itself. In particular, the process helps ensure issues in the residence are addressed by residence staff and senior leadership in a way that respects the priorities and preferences of the tenants. Advisory Group members become trusted peers in each residence, and can represent the needs of neighbors who don’t feel motivated to self-advocate. The elected tenant leaders also provide a valuable and personal perspective to staff that they cannot access otherwise.
In this framework of engaging and empowering supportive housing tenants, a planning group held a Tenant Advisory Forum at Fountain House at 425 West 47th Street in Manhattan. The forum—the first in a series—focused on starting a Tenant Advisory Group and empowering tenant advocacy in Supportive Housing. Supportive Housing providers currently doing tenant advisory work—Community Access, Urban Pathways, and Breaking Ground—discussed barriers to creating tenant advisory groups, provided examples of best practices, and suggested resources for Supportive Housing providers interested in establishing groups.
In our next Forum in the Bronx there will be more audience question and answer sessions and chances to network. There will be new speakers and new ideas. Bring your questions and thoughts, and as you learn from us we will learn from you. Please just then say to join the planning group working on creating citywide tenant advisory councils reach out to Carla at firstname.lastname@example.org
Pullout: “…the process helps ensure issues in the residence are addressed by residence staff and senior leadership in a way that respects the priorities and preferences of the tenants.”