July marks 24 years since CUCS became an independent nonprofit. What began as a small, interdisciplinary project at Columbia University, named Columbia University Community Services, turned into one of the nation’s leading supportive housing service providers – serving over 50,000 people a year!
In honor of CUCS’ 24th birthday, we sat down with Tony Hannigan, President, CEO and founder of CUCS, to discuss the history and some of the greatest challenges and successes the organization has seen over the years.
What influenced you to work with homeless people?
When I began doing work in mental health in the very early 80’s, there were about 5,000 homeless individuals in the shelter system. The emergence of wide-scale homelessness represented a new social problem. I am a native New Yorker and actually seeing people living on the street was incredibly startling. It seemed to me that not only was it a solvable problem, but homelessness should not happen on that scale. As a newly minted social worker, I wanted to take it on.
How did CUCS come to fruition and how has it expanded since its founding?
CUCS’s original purpose was to contribute to the development of curriculum material about the needs of single poor people for the Columbia University School of Social Work. The thinking at the time was that family and children had a constituency, the elderly had a constituency, the physically disabled had a constituency, but there was not much support or being done to support single, homeless and low income individuals. When I got involved, we sought out learning opportunities by providing services to residents of privately owned SRO hotels in upper Manhattan.
Over the years, we have expanded our services exponentially…the problem of homelessness has obviously not gone away. Today we develop affordable housing and provide services to homeless singles and families, and our many Single Stop Centers help low-income people throughout the city. We have gotten very involved in justice rights issues, and our training now extends well beyond our work with social work graduate students to more than 15,000 professionals a year, including people from the human service sector, the justice and legal sectors, and the New York Police Department.
What have been some of the greatest challenges that CUCS has had to face?
Initially, when we spun off from Columbia University in 1993, we did not have any back office operations, board of directors, accounting department, human resources department or an IT department. So putting together the entire infrastructure was a big challenge that we had to overcome early on.
These days, every building and every new project that we do has its own challenges, from successfully siting it in a community to raising the funds for development. There have been projects that we have undertaken, where we have put in an incredible amount of resources, and in the end, for some reason or another, the deal fell through and we have to move on to the next one. Then there are the challenges of trying to have a healthy organization, where the staff feels they work in a good environment, and are adequately compensated. Working with donations and government money has challenges unique to non-profits.
What are some of the greatest successes CUCS has seen over the years?
We were at the forefront of the supportive housing movement. When CUCS was a project at Columbia University, many single low-income individuals lived in privately owned single occupancy hotels. I was taken aback by the living conditions and the isolation of the tenants who were cut off from society and services. I believed people should have quality affordable housing and quality supportive services in an integrated community. That thinking was part of the genesis of the supportive housing model. Supportive housing meant that people with and without mental illness would live together with access to the services they needed, and they would have leases and services would be voluntary. Until that point, people with a serious mental illness, if dependent on the system for housing, had no choice but group homes, which are the exact opposite of supportive housing. Today, supportive housing also extends to families. CUCS opened one of the first buildings that integrated singles and families — The Lenniger Residences. I think it is these types of improvements that have an impact on the larger system.
Our commitment to training programs and education also contributed to system change. Years ago CUCS embraced “evidence-based practices”, which are practices that have been tested and shown to make an impact. People come to CUCS trainings and then take what they’ve learned back to their various organizations across the country. Through this process, we are influencing the quality of programming that people around the nation receive. At Columbia, we also learned the advantages of having a student unit. Students are the next workforce, and helping them helps keep us fresh. We find staff to be genuinely interested in teaching and giving the students the best experience possible. We have also found that many students come back to CUCS at some point after graduating social work school. Many of our staff members today did their student placement at CUCS.
If you could go back to when CUCS was at its earliest stages, what advice would you give yourself?
My best boss ever gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me to this day. He said you have to have courage and be willing to take risks because if you don’t take risks for something that you really believe in, it will not happen. That was George Brager, who, among many other accomplishments, was the Dean of the Columbia University School of Social Work. There were many initial risks when we left the University to become an incorporated organization in 1993. Without his example, advice and encouragement, I think CUCS would likely not exist today. I’m glad I took that risk, and if I could go back in time, knowing the future, I would do it again.