CUCS has spent decades working to provide people impacted by poverty, homelessness, and mental illness with homes in which they could be supported to reach their goals. Our signature permanent supportive housing model provides residents with medical care, psychiatric care, and social services in their own building. Over the years, we recognized there was a pressing need beyond just that of individuals—programs for families affected by the same conditions.
We opened our first permanent supportive housing site for families in 2011, and the program has been growing ever since. CUCS is now proud to work with families at three supportive housing sites: The Lenniger Residences, The Sydelle, and the recently opened Kingsbridge Heights Apartments. These programs have bloomed into vibrant, encouraging communities that support parents and children alike.
We sat down with Deputy Chief Program Officer Stacy Matuza to talk about our family programs and how they help New Yorkers of all ages build brighter futures.
What were the initial goals when CUCS began supportive housing programs for families in 2011?
Initially we focused a lot on the head of household, because it was something that we were really good at doing: working with an adult in charge who has a special need. The goal was to work with that person to move along in their recovery, whatever that would be, and that helping that person in their recovery would benefit the whole family. We also put some activities in place at that time, and our focus was after-school and homework help.
We tried that for the first year or two, and it never really took off. As we got to know the families more and learn more about them, we realized that the needs for that kind of intervention were much more in-depth than what we initially put in place. So, after a couple of years, we took a step back and realized that the head of household is still our primary client, but we want to approach the family in a different way.
How has our approach evolved?
We have gone from focusing on the primary adult in the family to a more family systems approach, and we have seen a lot of changes with our work and with our families in doing that. We have made the shift to working with the entire family and really looking at how they interact with each other. Where we would previously intervene primarily with the parent, now we are working in conjunction with the parent to get resources for their kids. We are talking to the families as a whole. We have started doing family meetings once a month. The staff will go into the family unit and ask each family member questions like, “What’s been going great for you this month? What was a challenge this month?” to try to elicit how we can help the family as a unit grow. So that has been a huge change, and I think a really beneficial one. That is how we foresee our services in all of the family programs now: we are working with the family as a whole, and not just individuals within it.
What does life look like for a child growing up in the CUCS community?
I hope it’s fun and enriching. There is a lot of support there. Our programming, especially our activities programming, is designed for the families to participate in together. For example, the birthday club every month is really fun. It is an event in partnership with The Birthday Party Project where kids who have had a birthday that month come down and have a birthday party, with cake, presents, and decorations, and all the parents are there. So, there are really excellent opportunities for them to have great socializing and meet kids in the community. We try to do programs to help support the kids in their education, too. Hopefully they see a lot of support and a lot of community-building.
How do our family programs foster a sense of community and connection?
Through our activities and through our groups. For instance, we do a parenting journey group at the site, which is a great therapeutic group for parents. It is really strength-based and a way for parents to explore what their childhoods were like and how the way that they were parented informs how they are now parenting: things that they didn’t maybe like from their childhood, ways to look at that and make changes—as well as things that they really appreciated, and making sure that they are doing that. It is a really supportive group. That is one of the ways in which we help parents be able to connect with each other and share their own struggles and their own successes. These activities we are talking about, like the birthday clubs and the summer barbecues, bring all the families together so that they start to form relationships and form their own networks.
What is your favorite activity within the program?
Probably the birthday club. I really like that. I also really enjoy the beginning of the school year. Our colleagues in CUCS’s development department get donations and we work to put together back-to-school supplies for kids. That’s just really fun and it’s really great to see it happening. There are backpacks full of supplies and everyone is getting ready for the new year.
What do you find most rewarding about getting to work with families?
Because there are not that many of these settings available, it is really rewarding to work with a family who has been through trauma and has had periods of homelessness, and to be able to give them a home that is beautiful, in a beautiful building, in great communities, and safe.
It is also really nice to follow families with kids throughout the years. Kids just go through so many changes so quickly. You do not really see that kind of change when you are working with adults, but to see kids going from elementary school into middle school, or graduating high school, and watching the family grow is really rewarding.