Kenneth Cole Fellows research provides insight into senior homelessness

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Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Many seniors living in the South Bronx feel constantly threatened by the prospect homelessness. Research conducted by a team of Kenneth Cole Fellows from Columbia University, while working with BronxWorks, found that seniors at risk of homelessness are often unaware of social services intended to settle rent arrears and landlord disputes, to negotiate Bronx Housing Court and, if necessary, to find them new homes.  This landmark study may pave the way for additional resources to address this and related concerns.

In a selective survey of current and past participants in BronxWorks’ Seniors Homelessness Prevention Project (SHPP) funded by the Oak Foundation, 98% agreed that rents in the Bronx were unaffordable.  Among other findings, 74% said their issues regarding housing and housing accessibility were underserved by community organizations.  BronxWorks was the exception, with 53% saying BronxWorks was the only organization that adequately addressed housing or other social services.   

The survey was administered by Columbia University undergraduate students from the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program, a unique fellowship program sponsored by Columbia University and fashion designer Kenneth Cole dedicated to fostering community service. The survey highlighted a 10-week schedule of research and data analysis by four Columbia students who were selected as Cole Fellows and based at BronxWorks. Dr. Natasha T. Rossi, adjunct professor with Columbia’s Department of Sociology and coordinator of the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program, selected the Cole Fellows.

“BronxWorks is grateful for this acknowledgement of the work we are doing to help seniors,” commented Eileen Torres, executive director of BronxWorks.  “The survey reveals that much more needs to be done to help the elderly avoid homelessness, and I hope it will encourage other organizations and the community as a whole to unite in helping our seniors.”

SHPP was first launched in 2011.  It had one staff person.  With the renewal of Oak Foundation support earlier this year, the program added a research component that was supported by the Kenneth Cole Fellows.  Their work will help inform future advocacy efforts related to older adults, especially those at risk of homelessness.

Because of SHPP’s success, its range of services, and the availability of seniors enrolled in the program for the research study, the Cole Fellows were able to proceed. The fellows were also able to confer with BronxWorks staff, key elected officials, representatives from other organizations, and Bronx Housing Court judges.  The end result was a well-rounded research document.

“The essential service component of SHPP is to help seniors in Bronx Housing Court avoid eviction,” points out Ms. Edwards, its program director. SHPP has one program specialist to screen referred seniors and two caseworkers to assist seniors with court proceedings, which can be a daunting experience for people of any age, but especially older adults.  According to a report by the New York City Marshals, 10,548 people were evicted by Bronx County in 2013. The survey noted that 70% had entered Housing Court unaccompanied by an advocate prior to connecting with SHPP.

Dr. Rossi regards the Cole Fellowship program at BronxWorks not only as a service to seniors but also as a means of providing the student Fellows with experience and insight in becoming community leaders and “agents of change.”  Dr. Rossi expressed great satisfaction with the outcome of the Kenneth Cole Community Engagement Program at BronxWorks.

“The Fellows were very enthusiastic and caring from the beginning of the program to the end,” said Ms. Edwards.  “The positive feedback shared by the Fellows impelled Professor Rossi during a visit to BronxWorks where she said they would consider steering our agency towards another internship opportunity with Columbia University’s Division of Student Affairs.”

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