HELPing vets: A Q&A with Maria Cuomo Cole of HELP USA
Maria Cuomo Cole is chairman of HELP USA, a major nonprofit organization providing housing and other services for homeless and low-income people in New York and several other states. The nonprofit was founded by Andrew Cuomo three decades ago, eventually propelling him to an appointment as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development during former President Bill Clinton’s administration.
When Cuomo Cole, Andrew’s sister, took the reins 25 years ago, she learned that many of its clients were military veterans struggling to get by after returning to civilian life. Cuomo Cole spoke with City & State’s Jon Lentz about the organization’s innovative programs directed toward military veterans, what President Donald Trump could do to reduce homelessness and what it’s like at Cuomo family get-togethers. The following is an edited transcript.
C&S: Why do you focus on military veterans?
MCC: You know, 1 in 4 homeless men is estimated to be a veteran. That’s actually a very old statistic. So HELP USA has been operating for 30 years, serving populations of families, single individuals, survivors of domestic violence, and certainly among our general populations, we can estimate that we’ve served hundreds and thousands of veterans through the years. In the mid-1990s, we had the opportunity to develop a transitional residence in Las Vegas and we learned in serving that community that the majority of the male single population were in fact veterans, older veterans, Vietnam vets, even some Korean War vets in our first years. And that model of transitional support services, in a clean, dignified, lovely residence that we developed, was greatly enhanced through a partnership with (Veterans Affairs) of Southern Nevada. And in order to really address the needs of our clients, we developed an integrated housing, mental health and support services model. We are still serving the Las Vegas community and we replicated that model in other communities where the need for permanent supportive housing for veterans was increasing with returns of deployment in 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012.
In 2009, if you remember, President (Barack) Obama’s State of the Union address was focused on this issue. It was the primary focus of the domestic agenda. And he declared a war on homelessness among veterans and set a goal to end homelessness among veterans, which was a galvanizing initiative and one that states and cities and communities took seriously around the country. What ensued were creative funding opportunities for nonprofits to develop transitional and permanent housing to an extent with the cooperation of political leadership, local and federal, in reducing homelessness significantly, in some communities almost completely. You know, very dramatic reductions have been reported over these last years. HELP USA was able to use its core strengths and innovation in serving families and serving populations in crises to address the needs of veterans, male and female. The VA had not been really prepared to serve female returning veterans in the way that they were pushed to after 2009. Females were serving in Afghanistan and in Iraq in an unprecedented way and many young female vets were returning to children and fragmented families and had to focus on family reunification while addressing a lot of their own special needs and were in tremendous, tremendous need for stable supportive housing for them to organize their lives through their transition into civilian life.
“If we can galvanize the support, the political will and the creativity and the innovation to solve the problem for vets, we certainly can and should do the same for families, children and other populations.”
C&S: In late 2015, the federal government had said that New York City had ended chronic veteran homelessness. Does that mean there’s no longer a problem there?
MCC: It’s difficult to say. The empirical data reflects a dramatic decrease in the homelessness among veterans. There’s no question about that. However, there are still hundreds and thousands of veterans to be served with special programming, with mental health services, with employment readiness, with job training, and certainly with increased prevention measures. HELP USA has been running very progressive prevention models for over a decade now and the VA actually modeled one of their support service initiatives around HELP USA’s prevention model and it is one that we have been administering in New York City and Las Vegas for the last several years. And through outreach with professional staff, we’re actually circumventing veterans from entering the homeless system, providing interventions that are aiding them in independent living, rental assistance, funding mental health services, employment, drug and alcohol, etc. But those interventions are making a difference and there’s a report statistic, an outcome statistic, of 90 percent of these veterans of being able to remain in independent living and, you know, that’s really the goal: to keep people out of the homeless system, families and children as well. We provide very effective prevention services for families as well.
C&S: You mentioned the Obama administration’s focus on homeless veterans. Could that be a model, if a similarly aggressive campaign on the federal level were launched beyond veterans, to address homelessness in general?
MCC: Excellent question. And the answer is absolutely. So the successful outcomes of the federal dollars and the cooperation of states and cities across the country in the race to end homelessness amongst veterans should serve as a model to serve other populations – certainly families and children. If we can galvanize the support, the political will and the creativity and the innovation to solve the problem for vets and create attractive supportive permanent homes, which also enhance communities, we certainly can and should do the same for families, children and other populations. There’s no question. It’s not a fatal disease. We know what works. And you know, we’re certainly hoping that we’ll be able to work as effectively with the current administration, with the new administration.
C&S: In terms of the new administration, President Donald Trump has put out budget proposals that really scale back funding in a number of areas. What would this mean for your work in particular?
MCC: During the campaign, candidate Trump was very vocal about providing improved services for veterans. It was a robust part of his campaign messaging. So we are certainly expecting to be able to work with the House, with the VA, with HUD on furthering HELP USA’s model and creating more permanent supportive housing in communities across the country to continue to reduce homelessness among veterans. The question shouldn’t even be are veterans homeless in America; it really should be are they living in adequate, dignified, supportive permanent housing, out of marginal circumstances, safe and secure.
C&S: There’s been a lot of attention paid to homelessness in New York City in recent months and years. The shelter population is at 60,000 and that’s a new record. This is something you have paid attention to for 25 years. What’s your take on the root causes of all this?
MCC: Yes, it’s true. We can’t deny the numbers. The numbers of homeless in New York City in the last months have been reported to be at an all-time high. It’s a very complex issue. The issues of economy, of our housing availability, availability of affordable housing, all contribute to these outcomes. However, I am always quick to say that after traveling around the country and working in other cities and other states, other communities, as bad as it is here in New York, as challenging as it is, no other community or city has a funded system of care – a sophisticated funded system of care – like New York City and like New York state. There’s nothing like it in the country, so we are fortunate in that regard. There are hundreds of nonprofit providers that are working, like HELP USA, in public-private partnership, trying to maximize the service dollars of the city. But the housing is a tremendous challenge. There are simply far too few units available.
“I don’t have to endure a campaign in order to get good work done. But I admire and respect those who can throw their hats in the ring. It’s a very tough, tough culture.”
C&S: Switching gears a little bit, you are an executive producer of “The Invisible War,” an award-winning documentary about rape and sexual violence in the military. U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand saw it and was inspired to introduce legislation. Have you worked with her?
MCC: Sen. Gillibrand has been a champion of reducing sexual violence among military, has led legislative efforts and is working hard to shift culture in Washington, and I think that’s really what that issue is about. Everyone recognizes, everyone agrees, of course there should be no reported cases of sexual assault in the military, or for that matter for any population, and I would say very successfully Sen. Gillibrand and her colleagues have been able to build consensus on that issue and we’ll continue to work together to reform policies. I was inspired to get involved with “The Invisible War” because of my work at HELP USA serving veterans. We saw a dramatic increase in reports of sexual violence among homeless female vets after the Iraq War and continuing through the Afghanistan deployments. It was a staggering statistic – 11 percent at first and then 20 percent of female vets actually reporting accounts of sexual violence while serving in the military.
C&S: Shifting gears, your brother is the governor, and your father was the governor, and your other brother is at CNN. Do you ever get roped into political issues or do you steer clear of that a little bit?
MCC: I’ve been very fortunate to be able to participate and make my contributions through HELP USA these last two decades in working cooperatively with government. The HELP USA model was designed by my brother, Andrew, as a creative social enterprise and based on a cooperative public-private partnership. Thirty years, having served half a million people and creating sustainable, beautiful, quality permanent housing in the most impacted communities proves that we can best serve our most vulnerable by working together cooperatively and creatively. So I consider myself fortunate in that regard. I don’t have to endure a campaign in order to get good work done. But I admire and respect those who can throw their hats in the ring. It’s a very tough, tough culture. The political life requires tremendous sacrifice on a lot levels.
C&S: And at your family get-togethers, does everyone talk politics?
MCC: Oh, no, never. (Laughs.) Never! Politics at the dinner table? Oh, no. What else is there to discuss? Let’s think. Yes, everyone in my family cares passionately about our political leadership and honors our American political culture, and appreciates our citizenry, and I think each of us feels compelled to make contributions in whatever way we can. Public service is certainly part of our upbringing and our value system.
C&S: And your father in particular, he was a renowned politician, but also something of an intellectual, which I’m sure was part of your upbringing, to really think for yourself.
MCC: Absolutely. Yes, and to think positively. My father always reminded us to think about the potential, to think about how to best use your gifts, and think about what more you can do, not to ever rest on your laurels.