It was the start of something big. In 1886, a seed was planted on the teeming streets of New York’s lower east side. University Settlement, then known as the Neighborhood Guild, was the first settlement house program established in the United States. From that seed, and hundreds of others planted across the nation, has developed both a model of human service delivery and a movement towards community empowerment that has helped to shape the face of America.
This month, to mark its own 125th anniversary and celebrate the worldwide movement in which it has played such an important role, University Settlement will host “The Settlement Summit” – the largest national and international gathering of the settlement house community ever held.
Settlement houses didn’t begin in the United States. Toynbee Hall in London was where the idea originated and was first put into practice. Settlement houses were just that – buildings in poor neighborhoods where university-educated members of England’s upper classes could settle in order to help local residents.
University Settlement was actually established by Stanton Coit, who had emigrated from England after working at Toynbee Hall. The agency began its life in a tenement on Forsythe Street, before raising funds to build its permanent home at 184 Eldridge Street in 1898. The magnificent, six-story structure, with high ceilings and beautifully crafted woodwork, was both program space and home to the Settlement House staff. Offices on the top two floors, complete with fireplaces and fine moldings, were originally bedrooms for upper class college graduates who came to live among the poor. “It was almost like an early version of the Peace Corps,” says Michael Zisser, University Settlement’s Executive Director for the past 22 years.
The Settlement Summit
The Door: A Model in Programming and Organizational Collaboration
Soon, other organizations sharing the Settlement House name and philosophy began springing up, both here in New York and in other major American cities. In 1889, Hull-House opened in Chicago. Three years later, Henry Street Settlement was founded. By 1910, there were an estimated 400 settlements across the country. Today, there are 140 members of United Neighborhood Centers of America. New York City, which surely offered the most fertile soil for settlement house development, has 39 members of United Neighborhood Houses (UNH).
Rather than focusing on single individuals with one specific problem or need, settlement houses were intended to serve an entire community with a broad range of programs and services from which entire families could benefit. “Activities were structured around clubs,” says Zisser. “There were ‘Child Care Clubs’, ‘Dance Clubs’, ‘Learn English Clubs’.”
Settlement houses often were the first to address community problems, long before government stepped in to take on the responsibility. Health issues were important. “We ran one of the first public baths in New York City,” says Zisser. Syphilis testing was another vital early service.
Settlements also sought to provide an oasis of culture and education in poor neighborhoods. “We had a library in this building before Carnegie built his branch libraries,” says Zisser. “We have great old photos of community residents viewing artwork that was on loan here from the Metropolitan Museum. It is incredible what they would send out.”
And, settlement houses were active in the battle to shape public policy. Many key members of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s team that created the New Deal – including Harry Hopkins, Frances Perkins and others – were veterans of the settlement house movement.
Over time, settlement houses evolved. During the second half of the 20th Century, the culture of well-intentioned, upper class altruism gave way to professionalization of services. Bedrooms for resident volunteers were converted to offices for trained social workers.
Settlement house clubs morphed into a system of formal human service programs. “Our ‘Child Care Club’ became the first kindergarten in New York,” says Zisser. “Our ‘Learn English Club’ has become a formal adult literacy program.”
And, as government took on more and more responsibility for traditional services, settlement house funding sources shifted away from well-heeled private donors to city, state and federal contracts.
The settlement house movement’s path of evolution hasn’t always been smooth. There have been ups and some downs along the way. Over the last 20 years, however, settlement houses in general – and University Settlement in particular – appear to have come back stronger than ever.
Zisser credits this resurgence to the fundamental strength of the settlement house model -- organizations rooted in their neighborhoods, with a capacity to raise private money to supplement government contracts and a proven ability to provide a strong network of widely varied, but interrelated, services. “It is a model that works,” he says. “History and tradition are on our side.”
Positioned for Growth
“We have experienced pretty steady growth,” says Zisser. “When I started in 1988, we had a budget of a little over $2 million. Today, it is approaching $40 million.” During the period from 2005 to 2009 alone, University Settlement more than doubled its programmatic sites from 10 to 21, while its budget increased by one third.
Much of University Settlement’s growth has come through an organic expansion in the range and size of programs which the agency offers. One significant growth spurt is the result of a merger with The Door, which University Settlement absorbed in 2000 to preserve its highly praised programs for at-risk youth. (See: box on page 11). More recently, University Settlement has begun to expand beyond its traditional lower east side neighborhood base and is now operating several programs in Brooklyn.
Zisser believes that all of this is only possible as a result of core competencies that University Settlement has developed as part of the settlement house model. The managerial challenges of creating interrelated systems of programs -- child care, youth development, senior services, etc. – by mixing and matching multiple and constantly changing government and private funding streams has forced settlement houses to be administratively nimble and programmatically innovative.
The reward for good work is more work, he maintains; something that is true for government contracts as well as life in general.
As one example, he points to University Settlement’s fully-integrated child care programming which combines funding from NYC Administration for Children’s Services (ACS) day care contracts, Universal Pre-Kindergarten and federal Early Head Start to create a single, seamless program in which all children receive the same services, regardless of the specific government-funded program in which they may be enrolled.
“It is totally transparent to the children and families,” says Zisser. “All the kids are mixed. All the staff are mixed. We apply the highest standard required by any of the funding sources to the entire program. For example, ACS day care doesn’t provide social workers for families, but Head Start does. So, we have social workers for all of the kids in our program.”
University Settlement is only able to manage this through careful financial management as well as the raising of additional private funds to cover the added cost. “We are one of the agencies that has been able to figure this out,” says Zisser.
As a result, however, the agency is well positioned to compete in ACS’ upcoming EarlyLearnNYC RFP, which outlines an integrated program model remarkably similar to its own. “We started ten or 12 years ago,” says Zisser. “It took the City a while to catch up. Nonprofits are dynamic. We can do things that government agencies can not do.”
Early childhood services account for approximately 41% of University Settlement’s budget (exclusive of its affiliation with The Door). In total, the agency provides center-based early childhood services for close to 250 children at its main headquarters. University Settlement also offers family-based child care for 250 children through a network of 70 providers, which it recruits, trains and supports. Once again, the continuum of both integrated center-based programs and family-based care position the agency well for the EarlyLearn NYC RFP.
Last year, the City recognized University Settlement’s programmatic and administrative expertise by asking it to take over a large but troubled child care center serving 170 children in East New York. “It took us about six months to totally transform that center into a high quality program,” says Zisser.
The move was consistent with another strategy for growth – expansion beyond its traditional lower east side base of operations – that University Settlement had already been pursuing.
“Five years ago, the board and executive management made a policy decision to export the expertise at the Settlement to neighborhoods with minimal organizational social infrastructure,” says Zisser.
In 2008, University Settlement opened its first program in Brooklyn, an after-school program serving 130 children at P.S. 133 in Park Slope.
The After-School Corporation (TASC) then invited the agency to participate in an Extended Learning Time (ELT) program. After-School Program Director Tameeka Ford Norville began collaborating to design a new elementary school in Bedford Stuyvesant, P.S. 636 where over 10 percent of the children currently live in homeless shelters. “The Extended Learning Time model is something that is starting to emerge nationally,” says Zisser. The program offers some interesting challenges. “It is more school-driven than CBO-driven. We use teachers a little more. Our staff actually overlap with teachers in the classroom during an extra period.”
Then, the Department of Youth and Community Development asked University Settlement to open two additional Brooklyn OST programs – P.S. 130 in Kensington and P.S. 219 in East Flatbush.
Finally, University Settlement won a new DYCD Cornerstone youth development program contract for a community center space at the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) Ingersoll Houses in Fort Greene Brooklyn.
“We now have a fairly strong presence in Brooklyn,” says Zisser. “We have four after school sites and the Cornerstone – plus the child care center in East New York.”
Now, University Settlement is seeking additional programs as a way to strengthen its range of services and its operating presence in Brooklyn. “We are about to open a satellite of our mental health clinic in one of the schools,” says Zisser, who is hopeful of finding additional space where the agency could develop a broader, settlement house-style array of services. “Ingersoll may have that capacity. It is a complete community center,” he says.
None of this expansion would have been possible, however, without University Settlement’s strong base of youth development programming experience in Manhattan. The agency has long operated a highly regarded Beacon program at East Side Community High School which serves 1,200 community members annually. It also runs a community-based OST-funded program at 175 Eldridge Street and school-based programs at P.S. 137 and P.S. 63. And, of course, it is corporate parent to The Door.
In total, University Settlement serves over 1,000 youth through after-school programs, more than twice the number in 2005.
The Community Center
Four years ago, in another display of innovative strategic planning, University Settlement co-opened the Houston Street Center in cooperation with the Chinatown YMCA. This 44,000-square foot, brand spanking new, state of the art facility features a swimming pool, gymnasium, meeting and conference spaces and more. And, it was a gift, although a gift 40 years in the making. In return for rights to build a major private development on an urban renewal site, the Avalon Bay corporation was required to construct a community center which University Settlement and the YMCA were designated to share. Zisser estimates the value of the facility at $10 million.
“This has been a very complicated real estate transaction, but these are the kinds of opportunities nonprofits need to be looking for and thinking about,” says Zisser.
The facility has enabled University Settlement to significantly enhance its existing child care, youth development and senior services programs on the lower east side. “There was no accessible indoor pool anywhere on the lower east side,” says Zisser. “Now we were able to include swimming and health and wellness in our other programs.”
The addition has been very well received. “We advertised it to seniors and thought that one hundred might enroll,” says Zisser. “The first year, we had over 700.”
Once again, the enhanced health and wellness programming places University Settlement directly in line with the City’s own vision of what senior services should include in the future. “We were running the fairly standard senior center model, which is heavily meals-based with social services supports and escorts,” says Zisser. “This really opened up the possibilities for us.” Now, seniors have the option of spending part of their day at the agency’s center at 189 Allen Street and part using the Houston Street Center’s pool and other facilities.
Unfortunately, there currently is no funding available through DFTA, ACS or DYCD contracts to support the Houston Street Center swimming programs for children, youth or seniors. Up to this point, much of the funding has come through foundation grants or legislative discretionary funding, including as much as $100,000 in state member item grants which will no longer be available to this year’s budget cuts. “It is going to be very difficult to keep that program going without that funding,” says Melissa Aase, University Settlement’s Director of Community Development.
And More and More!
As with most settlement houses, the list of programs offered by University Settlement goes on and on… and on.
In addition to early childhood, youth development and senior services, the agency runs adult literacy and ESOL classes for over 420 students. Over the past year, its Project Home program provided long- and short-term case management and tenants rights education for more than 1,000 households facing eviction. The Performance Project continues the settlement house tradition of making diverse and low cost cultural activities available to residents of the lower east side.
Somewhat less traditional is University Settlement’s comprehensive, community mental health programming, which includes a licensed Article 31 clinic, a home-based crisis intervention program, blended case management and a “zero-to-five” children’s mental health initiative program. “We look at it as one counseling package,” says Zisser. “I don’t think there is any settlement in New York that has as broad a range of mental health services.”
Despite its already long list of service offerings University Settlement is always in the process of developing new programs to meet emerging needs in the community. Through its affiliation with The Door, University Settlement has just opened its first housing program. The Door will provide services for 56 youth aging out of foster care as part of a larger supportive housing program being developed by Common Ground. A second, similar project, this time serving an additional 40 youth, is in the early stages of development in partnership with Phipps Houses.
University Settlement, like many other older and important nonprofit human service providers, is facing the challenge of gentrification. If you believe what you read in The New York Times, you would think there are no longer any poor or low-income families living on the lower eastside. That is not the case now; and it never will be, says Zisser. “The lower eastside has one of the largest concentrations of public housing projects in the city,” he explains. “While it is true that there are changes taking place in this community, there is a limit to how much it can change. We have waiting lists for all of our programs. There will always be large numbers of individuals and families who need the kinds of services we offer.”
For information about the University Settlement programs and services, visit www.universitysettlement.org