27 years and counting. That’s how long Rudy de la Haya has been working at CUCS. His career with us spans across decades and programs and we can’t get enough of his stories. We recently sat down with Rudy to learn about the evolution of his career, CUCS, and his take on the humanization of the people we serve.
What was your background before coming to CUCS?
My background was not in human services. I worked in the private sector for 15 years and prior to joining CUCS, I was in the music industry with Polygram Records where I was National Manager of Sales and Advertising. Even though it was really fruitful and I made a lot of money, I didn’t feel fulfilled. I knew I wanted to get into the human services field, so I took a big leap of faith and resigned. I told myself I should try and find a job that has to do with helping the poor, something nobler for my summations, and I did.
I decided to apply at CUCS when they were still part of Columbia University. They had a drop-in center, street outreach team, and permanent supportive housing sites, and I was interested in that. I applied, they hired me, and that was kind of the beginning.
That’s quite a change. What was your transition like into nonprofit work?
I remember it being such a culture shock for me. At Polygram Records, I had an office on the 33rd floor with a view of Central Park, a staff of people, expense account and then suddenly, I’m at the basement of The Delta supportive housing program with a folding chair and a pencil thinking, “Oh my, this is a big mistake.” I thought I was going to come in and just change the world.
From the start I was under the tutelage of Sue Smith, director of The Delta at the time and such an amazing person. She taught me the ropes and little by little it became a natural fit.
The Delta supportive housing residence was just opening when I first started. It was an interesting time because everyone was new; all staff and residents were new, even the building management and cleaning staff. Best of all, it was a time of renewal and bonding. When people moved in, we all went out and helped them bring in their things. Some of us were even climbing up five flights of stairs carrying their belongings. Generally speaking, there was just a real positive vibe at The Delta.
Back in the late 80s, early 90s AIDS had devastated a big part of the city. I remember a case at The Delta where one of our residents was really sick and had all the symptoms of having full blown AIDS. At the time, people were very afraid to touch anyone with AIDS. She collapsed in front of the building and I remember the tenants swarming out of the building, immediately wanting to help her. They lifted her up, brought her inside, and sat her in the lobby with absolutely no fear whatsoever. They got cloths, wiped her down and comforted her. I remember that day so well because I thought to myself, “I’m in the presence of the most amazing people in the world and I get paid to be here.” It really helped change my perspective.
I realized that people who have troubled pasts renew your faith in human kind. You would think that with all their life experiences they would have lost their humanity but quite the opposite; they gained more. I began thinking “I’m home, this is where I belong.” I no longer missed the expense account, the fancy office, and all that other stuff.
How has the work of CUCS evolved through the years?
At the time, the mission of CUCS was to eradicate homelessness and get as many people housed as possible, but once we got them housed, then what? So we sat back and evaluated what the next step was. Under innovate leadership, our CEO Tony Hannigan in particular, we experimented a lot with figuring out what the next evolutionary step would be in providing services to people who were formerly homeless, particularly people with mental illnesses.
We went from programs to programs; we found good programs and extracted the best from them while developing our own. Joe DeGenova, our Associate Executive Director, came along with his great vision which leaned towards evidence-based practices (EBP), kind of the advent of EBP. He and Tony helped propel CUCS forward in a really positive way. It was a little troubling at first because we transitioned from a grass-roots, small independent agency into a much larger one, leaving our comfort-zone behind.
However, I believe that change is constant. With innovative leadership, I think we discovered that we have to evolve and keep pace with everything that is changing in people’s lives. As soon as you think “Ok, we’re doing really really good work here,” someone will come along and say “There’s research that says we can do even better work if we do it this way,” and we get to work.
What is one of the greatest qualities about CUCS?
I believe that staff at CUCS is probably better trained than any other agency in the city. The reason why I say that is because when I was a trainer, I could tell right away where the participants in my trainings were from by virtue of the questions to the content. When someone from CUCS was in the audience and I would ask a question about person-centeredness or recovery, the hands would come up and they would immediately know how to respond to those questions in a very sort of humanistic way.
There’s also a focus on being with clients in a way which allows for dignity. Staff don’t see themselves as ‘great emancipators’ but more so as observers of people who experience a renaissance. They facilitate the kind of partnership with them where the credit is always in the hands of the client, as it rightfully should be while they transform their lives. I think that’s what makes us different from other agencies.
What is your favorite part about your job?
Currently, I am the Assistant Director of Curriculum Development. What I really like about what I’m doing now is that I have the opportunity to consistently learn new things and really broaden my learning base. Every six months I have a different topic I conduct research on and get new information. Topics range from LGBT to Aging in Place in Supportive Housing to Housing First.
We also take very good care of our curriculum and conduct reviews annually. We go through and confirm anything we have that is research related with Cochrane Review. We also try and get experts to vet and confirm what we’re sharing on our topics. It’s a lot of extra work, but it’s worth it because it’s vetted and forward thinking.
In 27 years, what has been the greatest takeaway working in the human services field?
There’s a certain beauty and grace to the brokenness. It’s something that I talk about in trainings. There is a Japanese custom that when ancient pottery breaks, instead of throwing it away, they put it together by literally melting gold and piecing it together so that it’s back on the shelf. You can still see the breaks lined in gold but it gives it life and that’s how I see the tenants that we work with, and not only the tenants but the staff, too. That we all come to the table broken, for some reason we never celebrate our breaks and yet, they are what give us the greatest meaning, the greatest power and the greatest grace we could possibly have. And from the very first day I started working, that’s what I noticed: the people we provide services to are resilient; they’re bound by gold.