Thursday, March 24, 2011

How do Homeless Families survive without the Advantage Program?

The Advantage Program is a housing subsidy program for homeless families which began in 2007 and is operated by the NYC Department of Homeless Services (DHS).  Families who go through the shelter system receive a voucher which pays a substantial part of their new rent, making it affordable for people to move to permanent housing (providing a home to house a family is less costly than utilizing the shelter system for the homeless).  This arrangement lasted for two years, during which families were expected to become stabilized, find work and begin paying their own full rent.

Unfortunately, after the two year period, about 51% of the families were unable to pay their unsubsidized rent and subsequently returned to the City’s shelter system.  Because of its high recidivism rate, the Advantage Program has come under attack and the State has proposed eliminating the program completely.  The City responded by ceasing the signing of leases for current shelter families effective March 14, 2011 and will stop rent payments to landlords effective April 1, 2011 (more info on elimination of services).  The termination of the Advantage program will affect New York City families and, in turn, some of the families with disabled children served by the Tier II program and Housing Assistance Program at Sinergia.  We are already feeling the effects, and this is only the tip of the iceberg.

One of our consumers, a mother, along with her non-verbal son with intellectual and developmental disabilities, were living in severely overcrowded conditions. The young boy's behavior in school was affected by this, as was his relationship with everyone in the household. While living under these conditions he regressed substantially and became withdrawn and depressed. The family moved into one of Sinergia’s Tier II apartment, which is meant to be transitional housing until families find permanent, affordable housing. Nevertheless, it provided space for the son to move freely, and he did not have to wait in line to use the bathroom and was able to sleep in his own bed.  His teacher noted his behavior and functional progress had improved remarkably. Once her son was stable, Sinergia helped the Mom to secure a job. She then met the requirements for the Advantage voucher, and she identified an affordable apartment that accepted it. Now this dream is on hold.

Another couple with three children, one with developmental disabilities, came to Sinergia’s Housing offices this week with a letter from DHS informing them that beginning April 1, 2011 they would no longer subsidize their $1,600 rent. The couple is devastated.  A year and a half ago they entered the shelter system and with the help of Sinergia were able to get an Advantage voucher and rent a three bedroom apartment.  The husband works, but doesn’t earn enough to pay the total rent.  They are concerned about returning to the shelter system; they remembered how much their kids suffered because of the conditions and instability of being homeless.

Both families are in limbo, overwhelmed by the lack of affordable housing in the city and what the impact of facing an unknown future will have on their children. We hope the City and the State will find alternatives to the Advantage program because low income families have few options for securing affordable housing in the marketplace. Otherwise we will see the return of families living on the streets or forced into inhumane homeless shelters. Children, especially those with disabilities, will suffer the most from the instability of a family adrift without a home.

UPDATE (3/31/11) - Legal Aid believes these terminations are unlawful and filed a lawsuit on behalf of tenants whose benefits were terminated.  As a result of this filing, the City was ordered to pay Advantage rents for current Advantage tenants for the month of April pending a hearing later this month. (We don’t know if the lawsuit will resolve anything, but we’re hopeful.)

Related resources:
Legal Aid’s flyers with additional information in English and Spanish, from the New Destiny Housing website. 
NYC: 15,000 Ex-homeless Families Losing Rent Help (WSJ)
Updates from the Coalition For the Homeless

Monday, March 7, 2011

Choosing Healthy Foods

For Asuncion Muyalde, nutrition is an ongoing process. She oversees Sinergia's nursing department, and part of their job is to assist participants of the residential programs with their menu planning and food shopping. "Some of our consumers have problems because of their nutritional intake," explains Ms. Muyalde, "so for individuals with diabetes or other chronic conditions, proper foods are essential to their well being.  For example, for consumers with hyper tension we ensure they are on a low salt diet, although sometimes it's difficult to enforce. We educate consumers on food choices and what foods are loaded with vitamins and minerals so that they can maintain their health goals, whether it's low weight or low blood sugars."  The nursing staff teaches residents and other staff members about the wide variety of inexpensive food choices available in the market. "They don't have to buy organic products which are costlier. The most important thing is choosing foods wisely to promote health - that's a continuous process, a real nutritional challenge," she adds.

Ms. Muyalde came across this list on "It's loaded with so much great information about foods that people that might not be aware of," she points out.

TEN Super Foods You Should Eat:

1.) Sweet potatoes= A nutritional all- star, loaded with carotenoids, Vitamin C, Potassium and fiber.

2.) Mangos= Just one cup supplies almost as much Vitamin A and C as most people need in an entire day.

3.) Plain Yogurt= Has more protein, potassium, calcium, zinc, and vitamins B-6 and B-12 than sweetened yogurt.

4.) Broccoli= Lots of vitamin C, carotenoids, and folic acid.

5.) Wild Salmon= The omega-3 fats in salmon can reduce the risk of sudden- death heart attacks.

6.) Crisp Breads= Loaded with fiber and and often fat-free.

7.) Beans= Inexpensive, low in fat, and rich in protein, iron, folic acid, and fiber. Choose garbanzo, pinto, black, navy, kidney or lentils.

8.) Watermelon= Excellent source of Vitamin C and carotenoids, and it tastes great.

9.) Butternut Squash= An easy way to get payloads of vitamins A and C and fiber.

10.) Leafy Greens= Loaded with Vitamin C, carotenoids, calcium & fiber.

March is National Nutrition Month so for more information on staying healthy visit Other articles of interest:
How Much Do Fruits and Vegetables Cost?
The Food Pyramid
Daily Food Planners & Interactive Tools 

Sinergia is offering 3 upcoming workshops on the topic of Alternative Nutrition for Children with Disabilities: Gluten Free Diets, on March 3rd, Reading Labels: Choosing Healthier Foods with Less Chemicals, on March 24th and Implementing a Dairy Free Diet for Kids, on April 14th. To register for these FREE events, please call Gina Peña-Campodonico at 212 643-2840, ext. 305 or by e-mail at gpena at

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Day Hab's Black History Month Celebration

On February 17, 2011, the participants of Sinergia’s Day Habilitation program presented a Black History Celebration in the Activity Center of our headquarters at 2082 Lexington Ave. The festivities included presentations by individual groups of the Day Habilitation’s participants. One group presented information about Harriet Tubman and the intricacies surrounding the operation of the famous “Underground Railroad” (the hidden routes used by Ms. Tubman to secret runaway slaves from the South to freedom in the North). The presenters educated the audience about how the “conductors” of the “Underground Railroad” often used homemade signs and scraps of fabric or pieces of quilts to indicate various conditions along the route. Some of the signs indicated danger, direction, safe passage, that there had been a death along the route or that safe lodging and food was available to those making their way to the North and freedom. (Below: A Day Hab group presents a biography on Soul Music pioneer, Aretha Franklin – the first African American female artist to win a Grammy.)

Other groups presented information on African-American historical figures, celebrities and politicians.  The entire presentation was done very well and was entertaining as well as educational. Thanks to the Day Habilitation staff and participants for a very meaningful, thought-provoking and enjoyable presentation! (Below: Rosie shows the quilt square sample she made that indicates to “Underground Railroad” riders that they should follow the geese to the North.)

The Right to Translation of the IEP into Spanish

When interviewing a parent who is seeking assistance with their child's special education needs, Liz Pardo, who is an educational advocate for Sinergia's Metropolitan Parent Center, will always start by making reference to their child's Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. Time and time again she's been confronted with the same response: parents who do not know what she is referring to until she describes it to them in more detail. Most often, it is a parent whose first language is not English who will not know the IEP by name. Some parents will recognize the name and know that it constitutes the whole of child's special education services, however, because they cannot read English, they are unsure of its contents.

What's wrong with this picture?  Ms. Pardo says that studies have shown that parent involvement in their child's education is key to their child's academic success. But she adds that if a parent cannot cannot read their child's IEP, they will be unable to meaningfully participate in an IEP meeting or in their child's education. The Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA) recognizes the importance of parent involvement, hence provides for the right to translation services (such as the translation of an IEP) and interpretation services (such as at an IEP meeting). 

In New York City it is common for an IEP to be in English, despite the parent being an English Language Learner. You must ask for it, and as with all important requests, it should be made in writing!   

Sample letter

City, State:

Requesting Translation of IEP for my child: _______________________________

Dear Mr./Ms.__________________________________,

I write seeking a translation of my child's IEP into Spanish, my primary language.  This translation will permit me to more fully understand and participate in the IEP meeting as well as to participate in my child's education throughout the school year. The request is made pursuant to federal, state and local laws.

I thank you for your time and assistance in this matter.  



Additional Resources
Language Services & Special Education - New York City
Servicios Linguisticos y de Educacion Especial - Cuidad de Nueva York