‘Our Older Adult Neighbors are Having to Make Very Difficult Decisions’

A talk with the former president and executive director of Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center on the UES

| 13 Jul 2022 | 11:12

Greg Morris served as president and executive director of Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center on the Upper East Side starting in 2013, after having served in key managerial positions at the Children’s Aid Society, The Door, and University Settlement. In 2021, SI began its affiliation with Goddard Riverside Community Center on the Upper West Side, with Greg serving as chief program officer of the affiliated organizations. Greg ended his tenure with GRCC in June. We spoke about the how the community has dealt with the challenges of the pandemic.

The UES has more economic and social diversity than is generally understood. SI has a history of working primarily with senior citizens and youth. What would you say are the most pressing on-going priorities for this community as we move forward in very challenging times?

This is a community with the largest percentage of older adults in Manhattan, and one out of every of five of them are low income, or frail or both. Too often, our older adult neighbors are having to make very difficult decisions about whether to use what resources they have to pay for food or medicine or rent. It is deeply troubling that less than one percent of our city’s budget is directed to the department that is responsible for senior services, despite a rapidly increasing older adult population – a population that experienced exponentially higher death rates due to COVID-19 than any other age group.

There is no shortage of dynamic, experienced, and innovative providers of older adult services on the Upper East Side, and they and other providers across the city will tell you that older adults are not necessarily finding their way back to Senior Centers. That may be related to delays and confusion about reopening or fears about their health and safety. The next iteration of a senior services is going to take comprehensive in-person and virtual (remote) services, increased access to health coaching, mental health services, visiting nurses and an investment in caregivers. These are significant investments to be made in alignment with the City’s age-inclusive Community Care Plan. I think the UES can champion this effort.

While all children were compromised academically, socially and emotionally, during the pandemic, it is the children in this community who live in public housing who fell even farther behind their peers. COVID-19 had a disproportionate impact on residents of public housing, the majority of whom are Black and Latinx families who live in buildings that have deteriorated significantly and dangerously over time. Remote learning was compromised because of limited accessibility to high speed, low cost broadband and other necessary technology, exacerbating the digital divide for public housing residents.

There are persistent disparities between the academic performance of students that live in NYCHA and those that don’t. Every child in our community should be prepared to attend and excel at exceptional schools in New York City – public and private. Many of those schools are within just a few blocks of Isaacs Houses and Holmes Towers but feel entirely inaccessible to residents. The UES can choose to commit itself to equalizing educational opportunity.

Many non-profit leaders are hoping that under Mayor Adams’ leadership, longstanding issues confronting these organizations – low wages, unreasonable contractual obligations – will finally be adequately resolved. Are you optimistic about these challenges, and are there others which should not be overlooked?

It is not insignificant that the current administration’s first budget included a $60 million investment in human services workers to respond to the historic wage disparities in the non-profit human services sector in comparison to city government workers and the private sector. This investment was the result of relentless advocacy by leaders in the sector and the coalescing of the workforce behind the #JustPay message. However, the investment that our elected officials made does not close the gap enough to ensure a minimum wage standard of $21/hour, which is really the floor. Over time, that floor needs to raise to a prevailing wage to ensure that the workforce that is primarily responsible for meeting the needs of vulnerable New Yorkers is compensated at level that is reflective of their value. There are over 80,000 workers in the human services sector; 75% are workers of color, 70% are women.

There are many high-rise developments targeted for upper middle class or wealthy buyers springing up near the Isaacs Houses and elsewhere in the community, with minimal or no requirements to also provide sufficient affordable housing. What do you envision will be the impact of allowing more of these projects, and what could the community be doing to manage this growth without properly addressing the balancing of housing priorities?

Full disclosure: I’m one of the co-chairs of Community Board 8’s Housing Committee and we have spent a year or more seeking to educate ourselves on approaches that neighborhoods have considered to create more affordable housing options. I am pleased to be part of a Community Board that has placed affordable housing at the top of its list of pressing issues in the annual District Needs statement. That said, there are significant limitations to what a CB can do to retain and increase affordable housing options and that’s especially true when there is an intersection of circumstances that lead developers to think they don’t need to commit to affordable options and some community members to think that affordable housing isn’t their problem.

The Department of City Planning analyzed housing development in the City – and found that despite what seems like relentless construction and the proliferation of scaffolding, the UES gained less housing in the past decade than almost any other neighborhood – just 278 units since 2010. The starting point to any reasonable effort to improve this result has to be a collective understanding that there is a housing crisis in our city and the UES has a role to play in responding to that crisis.

The affiliation of Stanley Isaacs with Goddard Riverside continues a consolidation movement within the nonprofit community, but these “corporate” decisions can create unforeseen consequences. What advice would you give to other senior executives as they consider making important decisions regarding organizational redesign?

When the SI Board chose to enter the relationship with GRCC, it did so not because of a crisis situation, lack of confidence in the leadership, financial position, operational acumen, fundraising capacity or programmatic success. It chose this path because of an interest in developing a truly comprehensive service portfolio that was impactful and innovative and aligned with a reconstituted vision for what a multi-service, multi-generational organization can and should look like following a public health crisis and in response to injustice and inequity in our city and our nation.

By developing a strategic partnership with GRCC, SI had the opportunity to build a three generation “whole family” service delivery model targeted to public housing residents, expand transitional and supportive housing, and develop pipelines to college and careers for 14-24 year-olds regardless of their current educational status. SI also had the ability to reset our compensation bands, secure exceptional benefits plans, and maximize opportunities its personnel to grow within both agencies.

I’m sharing these thoughts because the initial reasoning behind a partnership has to reflect shared organizational values and a vision for what a partnership will accomplish over time. Inevitably, organizational changes may highlight differences of culture and conflicting views on the role of staff/board leadership. While teams are being reconfigured, the organizations are challenged to reset their procedures, processes, and priorities. The SI/GRCC affiliation is high stakes and its success is dependent on the investment it makes in navigating these complexities in ways that are transparent, respectful, and focused on the idea as a mentor told me once, “Good isn’t good enough.”

Residents of the UES support many philanthropic organizations. If they were going to offer support to SI, what actions would you recommend they undertake?

I served on the Human Services Recovery Task Force in 2021, and one key statements in the report is that businesses other than nonprofits “do not face the same caps on indirect costs, and by neglecting to pay for necessary expenses, government has stripped providers of fundamental resources needed to successfully operate.” In other words, if you’re a for-profit city and you’re responsible for repairing a bridge in this city, you’re paid fully and on time – no matter how long it takes to repair that bridge. But if you’re responsible for feeding a homebound senior in Yorkville today or helping to prevent a family from eviction in Lenox Hill, you have to wait your turn. If you support the work of your local nonprofit organization, you need to hold your elected officials – on a local and state level – accountable for their investments in these organizations.

Specific to the day-to-day supports that UES can offer, SI has always sought to celebrate its volunteers whether they are neighbors, school groups, corporations, volunteer organizations, or members. Many of those volunteers support our effort to address food insecurity and hunger in Manhattan. Since 1966, Isaacs Center has delivered more than 2.5 million meals to the homebound elderly through its Meals on Wheels program which extends from 59th Street to 142nd Street on the east side of Manhattan.

Volunteers are a key part of the daily delivery. A remarkably dedicated team of professionals and young adult graduates from our culinary arts training program produce more than 600-800 meals in SI’s Community Kitchen on a daily basis. (That number doubled during the height of the pandemic.) In addition, in 2021, its graduates launched Soup’s Up, a food service delivery program that bolsters the health and wellness of low-income Yorkville families by providing them with healthy meal kits made in-house that include prepared produce, grains, and stock that can be used to cook multiple meals using included recipes. I strongly encourage all readers to reach to SI to support these efforts because no one in this neighborhood should go hungry ever.

Thanks Greg! You served this community well during your tenure. In the spirit of transparency, I should note that Greg started his professional career right out of college working for me at University Settlement (and then The Door) where I served for 28 years as CEO before retiring six years ago.

“If you’re responsible for feeding a homebound senior in Yorkville today or helping to prevent a family from eviction in Lenox Hill, you have to wait your turn.” Greg Morris