NYC Community First

April 25, 2023 (Reposted from NYAPRS ENews)

man and woman eating on the street

NYAPRS Note: At last week’s NYAPRS Executive Seminar, representatives from Fountain House elaborated on several innovations that have been added to their historic model in recent years. One of them is detailed in the article below: a Times Square Recharge Station that is a key element in the NYC Community First program that was launched by the Center for Court Innovation, Midtown Community Court, Breaking Ground and NYAPRS members Fountain House and CUCS: Center Urban Community Services in 2021.

The program is based on a model that “focuses on building trusting relationships and meeting community members ‘where they’re at’ ‘before making linkages to services provided by community-based organizations,” in stark contrast to a model launched by City government last year that relies on police facilitation of involuntary hospitalizations. This approach begins with the provision of warm meal, clothing and blankets, as well as the opportunity to recharge mobile phones.

Congratulations to Fountain House, Breaking Ground, CUCS and NYC government for this powerful partnership that is successfully and voluntarily engaging and supporting people with major mental health and other challenges who are facing housing and food insecurity and social isolation.

See the City Limits column on the program written by Lauren Curatolo, Tom Harris, Brenda Rosen and now Commissioner of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene Dr. Ashwin Vasan for some background.

Recharge Station

In January 2021, Fountain House, Times Square Alliance, Midtown Community Court, and Breaking Ground came together to build Community First—a pilot project in Midtown Manhattan that uses a holistic approach. In this program, community navigators build trust with individuals, by first helping them meet their immediate needs—whether that’s a warm meal, clothing, blankets, etc.—and then connecting them with mental health services, housing resources, and medical treatment.

In July 2021, Fountain House, in an effort to build relationships and trust…. partnered with Project for Public Spaces to build a Recharge Station. Having worked on past place-based social service provision projects, we worked with the local fabricators to design and build a kiosk to be staffed by a Fountain House Social Practitioner and Fountain House members completing Transitional and Supportive Employment placements. As Fountain House’s incredible Social Practitioner Chloe Murtagh so aptly summarized it, “Project for Public Spaces helped Fountain House create a space to connect and experiment with new kinds of community building.”

Today, the kiosk serves people in need, who are experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and loneliness. Visitors and residents are also welcome. It’s a location all can use, which is crucial for building trust for those who are wary, have felt let down by service “systems,” or are afraid of being stigmatized. Functionally, the Recharge Station is designed to facilitate natural ventilation, keeping the inside cool in the summer. In addition, the kiosk was designed to have sufficient storage for the chairs and tables that expand the footprint of this safe haven during the day. 

As relationships are built, needs are shared. On a typical day, social practitioners work with the Community First Outreach team to provide help including obtaining ID cards, Social Security cards, benefits, doctor’s appointments, housing applications, and more. If individuals have mental health needs, they are also connected directly with Fountain House membership and psychiatric care. 

From December 2021 to May 2022, there were over 750 interactions with the target community, almost 500 of these being repeat interactions. In addition, there were more than 1,500 free cups of coffee given out, providing a token of comfort day after day. Based on this success, Fountain House is exploring the possibility of securing funding to expand the kiosk concept to more locations.


Community First: A Unique Approach to Street Outreach

Community navigators build trusting relationships with people in and around Times Square to connect them with mental health services, help with housing, and medical treatment.

Meaningfully Engaging Individuals

The coronavirus pandemic caused a significant increase in the number of people who are housing insecure and living with severe mental health issues and/or substance use addictions gathering in and immediately around the Times Square area. Whether it is a warm meal or a pair of shoes, our team of Community Navigators help people address immediate needs and then work towards linking them to longer term housing, services, and support. With programs like Community First, law enforcement no longer has to be the only response to mental health crises and homelessness.

The Community Navigator team heads out into the neighborhood with clothing, socks, PPE, blankets, food, and other materials to begin engaging individuals in conversations around their needs. These may be people who are experiencing homelessness, staying in a local shelter, or are in need of mental health services, harm reduction services, benefits connections, medical treatment, or any other number of services. Community Navigators also link people with services that may be difficult, if not impossible, for them to access like bathroom facilities, general wellness support, haircuts, showers, and laundry services.

I remember when I first met you all. You gave me a blanket when I was cold. — Participant

The Community First model differs from existing street outreach initiatives because it focuses on building trusting relationships and meeting community members “where they’re at” before making linkages to more meaningful and significant services provided by community-based organizations in the Midtown Community Court’s network. The time spent building trust with community members in need results in those individuals confidently engaging in critical services with greater chances for long-term success.

Our program has made a big impact since launching in 2021—we’ve engaged 466 individuals and completed over 1,045 interactions.

Meeting the Needs of the Community

Times Square Alliance approached the Center for Court Innovation, Midtown Community Court, Breaking Ground, and Fountain House during the height of the pandemic to ask for help designing and piloting an initiative to connect this population to the critical services they may need. 

The end result is Community First—a holistic community response. We felt it was important not to employ or rely upon traditional policing to solve the community concerns that emerged in and around Times Square during the pandemic, and to implement an intervention that prevents people from ending up in the justice system. 

I once lived out of a bag. With that being said, I really understand how things can change for the worst. At some point we all need a little helping hand. The people, the conditions, the circumstances, and boundaries that we respect is what sets this navigators program apart from the other outreach organization. — HARRY GLENN, Community Engagement Coordinator and Community Navigator

Times Square Today interviews Midtown Community Court’s project director, Lauren Curatolo, as she discusses the mission and accomplishments of Community First, as well as the role that Navigators play to fill the gaps in connecting community members with various needed services.

How It Works

After six months of running as a pilot, Community First formally launched in July 2021 with support from Times Square Alliance and New York City’s Department of Homeless Services. Our teams of Community Navigators identify with the lived and shared experiences of the community members they work with.

In partnership with city agencies and community-based partners, including but not limited to, Fountain House, Breaking Ground, and CUCS: Center for Urban Community Services, Community First takes a client-centered, trauma-informed approach, protecting the agency of the client when creating service plans and identifying goals and next steps. 

Community First’s team of Community Navigators operates from 40th Street to 53rd Street, 6th Avenue to 8th Avenue, including Restaurant Row.

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