A North Country teacher recalls how a student was making dinner for herself and her younger brother. “She had poured a pile of dried Parmesan cheese on two paper plates,” said Ogdensburg Education Association member Mary Wills.
Witnessing the effects of hunger and homelessness has emboldened unions to take the lead in the pushback against poverty. Wills, newly retired, directs the union-driven People Project. The organization relieves some of the grit and grip of poverty in St. Lawrence County, where onethird of the population earns less than $15,000.
The People Project, supported by NYSUT and the American Federation of Teachers, coordinates events with local unions and civic groups for community dinners, food pantries, backpack food projects, food trucks, clothes closets, book giveaways, transportation to school events, and supporting after-school and summer care programs. Recently, it hosted a standing-room only conference on Poverty and Trauma for educators and community leaders to share resources, information and strategies.
In Oneida County, unions are deepening their commitment to help impoverished families.
The number of families in need “has steadily been on the increase in Central New York,” said Rob Wood, president of the Rome Teachers Association. “Like many places across the nation, the city of Rome has lost a large percentage of its mill work and we are devoid of replacement employment opportunities.”
The union holds numerous drives to help out, and many teachers also open their wallets to feed and clothe students.
“However, the volume of need has far outgrown what the local union is capable of providing,” Wood said. “An even greater problem is that many of the families in need are unaware, or unable, to link up with service providers.”
Empowered by resources from the AFT, Wood and Rome TA colleague Joe Eurto secured Innovation Fund grants from the AFT to establish five community schools. Community schools integrate services, coordinate with partners and use existing government funding to meet students’ academic, enrichment, social and health needs. With an additional AFT grant of $350,000 announced this fall, their goal is to create five more schools in the city and several more in surrounding small towns.
The Rome TA created the nonprofit Rome Alliance for Education to oversee the community schools.
The organization hires school-based staff to get students and families help with dental care, mental health care, food and housing. The staff work to connect families with service agencies.
Resources within the community schools include computer labs for families, parenting classes and demonstrations of meal preparation. More than 200 students have taken part in summer programs.
Wood said the union-driven community schools initiative avoids a district-run structure that relies on budget and state aid; and the teacher-driven model provides “immediate dialogue between teachers and service providers.”
“Every day across New York, NYSUT members provide assistance to needy students and families dealing with the effects of generational and situational poverty which, unfortunately, are both on the rise in our state,” said NYSUT Secretary- Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, the officer in charge of the union’s social justice efforts. “Poverty is a universal social justice issue in every community, and our members utilize information and resources provided by the union to help combat food insecurity and economic inequalities.”
Every region of New York has been affected by a growing chain of poverty fostered by poor-paying jobs; lack of access to medical care, including mental health; unemployment and underemployment; loss of industry; racial salary inequity; and substance abuse.
The roiling effects of poverty left more than 148,000 New York students homeless last year, according to the State Education Department.
That number has increased 70 percent in the last decade.
New York City had 114,085 students — that’s 1 in 10 children and teens — who were homeless in 2018–19. Of those students, more than 34,000 lived in city shelters, and more than twice that number (73,750) lived temporarily with relatives or friends. According to Advocates for Children, fewer than half of New York City students living in shelters graduate from high school.
Follow a map of the state to find more than 2,400 homeless students in Rochester; more than 250 in Binghamton; nearly 450 in Poughkeepsie; and more than 1,800 in Hempstead.
“Wages are not keeping up with the cost of living. Many of our families are working poor,” said Wills.
The drug epidemic has its own dark role. “We have an opioid addiction crisis as well as a large meth problem. These drugs do not discriminate,” Wills said.
In meaningful efforts both large and small, NYSUT local unions do their part to help.
“Social justice lies at the heart of unionism,” Abraham said. “These locals and others across the state continue to demonstrate the power of grassroots action and show how they can be vehicles for change within their communities.”