UFC: The Story of Our Shelter in the Storm

Road to Recovery Slow, Steady

December 10, 2012 - By Henry Street Settlement

UFC employees Willie Rodriguez, Geniria Armstrong, Jesus Rivera, Benny Rivera and Frank Torres

While much of the Lower East Side has made a full recovery from Hurricane Sandy, Henry Street's Urban Family Center (UFC) shelter is still working under difficult circumstances with no phone or Internet service. Heat is being supplied by a temporary boiler.

The shelter was hard hit during the storm. Not only was the building damaged and supplies lost due to flooding, but the 108 families who live there were moved to city evacuation shelters for two weeks until the building was habitable.

In the aftermath of the storm, staff worked around the clock. The facilities staff was at the shelter 24 hours a day, to ensure that water was pumped from the lower level and to salvage what they could.

The shelter's other staff — case managers and social workers — were serving clients, albeit in different locations. Because the residents were dispersed to evacuation shelters throughout the city, Geniria Armstrong, Deputy Program Officer for Transitional and Supportive Housing, spent hours each evening using text messages and phone calls to make assignments for the next day. This task was made especially difficult because the Henry Street e-mail server was down, and many staff members live in the neighborhood and were without power and internet service themselves.

"We were very concerned about the well-being of our clients," said Ms. Armstrong. "Being homeless upon being homeless was extremely difficult for them; they were in vulnerable circumstances even before the storm hit."

Social workers and case managers tracked their clients down at the evacuation shelters, helping them connect to needed services, trying to arrange for their children to remain in school while living miles away. One resident, upon seeing her Henry Street case manager at the evacuation shelter, dropped to her knees in gratitude. "The storm was so devastating to so many, that seeing a familiar face was incredibly reassuring," explained Ms. Armstrong.

Ten days after the ordered evacuation, staff members were allowed back into UFC. It wasn't a happy homecoming. "We lost all of our supplies, including the basic household items we give to residents when they move in, including linens, cooking utensils and more," said Ms. Armstrong. Furthermore, the staff faced the unpleasant but necessary task of cleaning out each of the building's 108 refrigerators. Donning face masks and gloves, everyone — from MSWs to facilities staff to outside contractors — pitched in and completed the job in one long day, working without heat.

A temporary boiler was brought in, and residents returned to the shelter. "We are still working toward getting back to normal," said Ms. Armstrong. "Because of the dedication of our staff during this extremely difficult time, I have no doubt we will." A bright spot last week signaled that things were indeed returning to normal when volunteers from Credit Suisse arrived for the annual Home for the Holidays party, complete with a real-life Santa and crafts projects for children. 

One unfortunate consequence of the storm was the cancellation of the 40th anniversary celebration of the Urban Family Center, an event that will be rescheduled in the near future.

» See more photos taken at UFC in the days after the storm