New York, NY – On Monday, February 4th, 2018, Majority Leader Cumbo, General Welfare Chair Levin and five other members of the Progressive Caucus, along with their colleagues in the Council, rallied for #JusticeForJazmine before a General Welfare Committee hearing on twelve bills to improve treatment of clients and quality of service at HRA centers. Speaker Johnson, Majority Leader Cumbo, and Caucus members Adams, Ampry-Samuel, Levin, Richards, Rosenthal, Williams, along with colleagues Council Members Gibson and Deutsch, introduced the bills in response to an incident that occurred on December 7, 2018, when Jazmine Headley, a Black woman and mother, was unjustly arrested at an HRA office in Boerum Hill after seeking services for herself and her 1-year old son. The bills met many of the Progressive Caucus’ preliminary recommendations regarding Jazmine Headley’s ordeal, with a recognition that Black women and other low income women of color deserve better from our City in regards to service delivery – i.e. support, not criminalization or suspension of services.
In addition to the provisions of these bills, the Council Members advocated for additional investments in HRA/DSS to improve treatment of clients and fund programs that work. Overcrowding, wait times, and backlogs are a serious issue at HRA centers, preventing people from getting basic services in a reasonable manner, including food to take care of their families. Rather than closing down centers (HRA closed two SNAP centers in Brooklyn in September), the Council Members advocated for additional HRA funding for centers to be able to disseminate timely and effective services.
“We are amazing, we are incredible and we do have the magic; we are black women! We will not allow anyone to treat us as ‘less than’. Navigating everyday life is hard enough, and as primary caregivers, it’s even harder when the color of our skin can mean the difference between life and death. In the case of Jazmine Headley, officers violently ripped her 18-month-old son from her arms, and the world viewed that interaction, clear that the officers’ behavior was unwarranted and down-right wrong. It is essential that we stand together and firmly reject the criminalization of poverty. Annually, nearly 3 million New Yorkers rely on Human Resource Administration for economic support and social services through benefit programs; both client and worker must have opportunities to interact with an agency in a safe and positive manner. Several legislative reforms will be presented at the City Council and I am proud to usher in Int 1347, which is an innovative approach to provide clients an opportunity to have the availability to schedule appointments online and over the phone. Also, I put forward a resolution calling on the State Legislature to provide a grace period before terminating public assistance or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits due to a change in income and/or employment,” said Majority Leader Laurie A. Cumbo.
“Every person who walks into an HRA office deserves to be treated with compassion and respect, full stop. The recent assault Ms. Jazmine Headley faced brought to light serious gaps in our city’s social services system and the need for a top to bottom assessment and improvement,” said Council Member Stephen Levin, Chair of General Welfare, Member of the Progressive Caucus. “The fact is, Ms. Headley should not have even had to go to an HRA center that day, but did so after her benefits were improperly cut off. This is a story we’ve heard too many times before. I am proud to join my Council colleagues in advancing a comprehensive package of bills that addresses both the access to benefits and overall client experience and safety at HRA centers.”
“Over the years we have received many accounts of poor treatment of persons visiting HRA centers in need of assistance. This remains absolutely unacceptable, and what happened to Jazmine Headley is a stark reminder of the indignities and injustices that low-income New Yorkers are forced to endure. A full review is needed of how New Yorkers are treated when they visit HRA centers, and how this impacts their benefits. I’m proud to join my colleagues in pushing forward this package of legislation, and I’ve introduced a bill requiring the City to conduct an audit analyzing wait times, staff-to-visitor ratios, and access to technology at HRA job centers and SNAP centers. At the end of the day, Ms. Headley was punished for her need to seek assistance and for her crime of poverty. As a society, that is our failure, not hers,” said Council Member Helen Rosenthal, Chair of the Committee on Women, Member of the Progressive Caucus.
“Human resource centers were created to bring services and resources to underprivileged families throughout the City. However, it is unsettling to see that families are being mistreatmented at their most vulnerable moments. The bills that I am introducing, will help create a respectful and supportive environment for families visiting social services centers throughout the City. It will do so by requiring that HRA centers have adequate space for children, in addition to ensuring there are trained staff and social workers equipped with techniques in de-escalation and trauma informed care,” said Council Member Alicka Ampry-Samuel, Member of the Progressive Caucus.
“Jazmine Headley’s experience at an HRA facility was an absolute atrocity and a symbol of what thousands of other New Yorkers in need of public assistance have experienced when entering similar facilities that are meant to help people,” said Council Member Donovan Richards, Chair of Public Safety Committee, Member of the Progressive Caucus. “This package of legislation will help ensure that Human Resources doesn’t forget that their goal is to help human beings in need and to do it with compassion and consideration for what their clients are going through. Intro. 1377 would require that all Department of social services, human resources administration and Snap Centers provide confidential client satisfaction surveys to provide an avenue for clients to share feedback and concerns they have about their experience when receiving services. I’d like to thank Speaker Johnson and Council Member Levin for leading this effort to demand the absolute best from our social service administrations.”
“After the unfortunate escalation in the case of Jazmine Headley and so many others we must take steps to ensure that this does not happen again,” said Council Member Adrienne Adams, Member of the Progressive Caucus. “What is happening inside HRA offices in the name of law and order is in desperate need of reform. Vulnerable New Yorkers go to HRA offices for help and should not have to second guess how they will be treated. I am proud to have introduced a bill that will increase transparency for this agency.”
“Brooklyn Defender Services (BDS) thanks the Council for introducing bills to help mitigate the harm people seeking benefits suffer every day. We appreciate the intent of these legislative initiatives as first steps, and City Council must continue to hold HRA accountable to changing their culture that dehumanizes low-income New Yorkers,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.
“New Yorkers in need should be able to access assistance without the arduous and exhausting bureaucratic barriers that continue to pervade HRA programs in New York. Despite noticeable improvement under this administration, we at the Urban Justice Center hear daily from people whose benefit cases have been wrongly denied or reduced, who have been treated like just another number on a large caseload, and who encounter the inefficiencies and disrespect of overwhelmed Public Assistance and SNAP centers throughout the five boroughs. The bills being considered by the General Welfare Committee, if implemented, will lead to a significantly more transparent and accountable social services system. They should be accompanied by City funding to ensure that HRA Centers have adequate staffing, technology, and training to provide New Yorkers with the service that they deserve. These resources and necessary reforms will help foster a culture of respect and responsiveness at HRA benefits offices, which has for too long eluded those in need of help from the city,” Safety Net Project Benefits Supervisor Helen Strom said.
Safety Net Activist Brenda Riley recalled being forced to stand in line for hours, causing her immense pain, when she visited her Job Center to request payment for her utility bill. “Seniors and people with disabilities should never be treated in such a disrespectful manner. Two days later, after being bedridden, I had to visit my doctor because the medication was not working for my pain. Due to the extended wait in which I was sitting and standing at the Job Center, I began having escalating pain in my chest, knee, and back (which I never had before),” she said. “People seeking help in New York City should be treated respectfully and professionally.”
“It is a very cruel thing to be given hope. To do everything required of you and have that hope snatched away. A safety net with gaping holes leaves you unprepared for a crushing fall. I have in one short year encountered many instances where the Human Resources Administration has fallen short on skill, accountability and ironically, and most regrettably, humanity,” said Ebony, a member of the Safety Net Activists who was denied benefits due to errors on the part of HRA.
This incident also highlights the importance of investment in programs to support parents trying to access services. Pre-petition parental advocacy, in particular, is a needed priority to connect parents to services and support, rather than leaving them at risk of incarceration. The Progressive Caucus is committed to advocating for the correction of institutional failures illustrated by the Jazmine Headley incident and advocating for an effective, efficient and compassionate social services system that does not criminalize poverty.