A unique college-social services collaboration

By Cody Lyon

Thirty-six-year-old Harry C. was born and raised in New York City. Like millions of other New Yorkers before him, he made some mistakes as a young adult. He later found his way to the social services agency Project Renewal, a citywide organization that helps individuals impacted by homelessness, substance use, mental illness and/or justice system involvement find housing, healthcare and jobs.

After completing a substance use treatment program and finding himself in a more stable housing situation, Harry enrolled in Project Renewal’s Next Step Internship Program, training to become a maintenance worker. He was hired after the internship as a residential aide and eventually was promoted to case manager at Project Renewal’s New Providence Women’s Shelter.

“I help clients develop life plans, I make psycho-social referrals and help with living arrangements,’’ he explained, adding, “The end goal is to get the clients housing ready.”

Offering next steps

But Harry’s own personal goals include climbing the social services career ladder and to get beyond a certain level in his field, he’ll need a college degree. That’s where an ongoing collaboration between Borough of Manhattan Community College‘s (BMCC/CUNY) Human Services program and Project Renewal steps into the picture.

“A staff member at Project Renewal contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in taking a college-level social work course to help me further my education and career,” Harry said. “The course is taught by a BMCC professor.”

Harry was one of 15 Project Renewal clients who enrolled in the spring 2022 course, taught by BMCC Human Services Professor Debra Greenwood. Another 11 clients are currently enrolled in this spring semester’s course.

While enrolled, the Project Renewal clients are eligible for many of the college’s programs and services as well as use of some campus facilities.

Making all the parts work together

The genesis of the BMCC and Project Renewal collaboration involved several moving parts that reached across various programs and departments at the college.

“Initially, Project Renewal approached the Human Services program and asked if we would be interested in teaching the introductory social work class to further develop their workforce development mission,” said Lisa Rose, a professor who coordinates the Human Services program. “It wouldn’t cost us anything, and considering BMCC’s push to emphasize workforce development, increase enrollment and bring more non-traditional students into the college, this program is a win-win.”

After setting up the academic framework with Senior Vice President and Provost Erwin Wong, Rose worked with the registrar’s, financial aid and admissions offices to enroll the Project Renewal clients into the course on a non-credit basis.

Director of Admissions Lisa Kasper reached out to James Simmons, assistant director of admissions and international programming, and asked him if he would be interested in participating in the collaboration.

“I became a liaison between BMCC’s admissions department and Project Renewal clients,” Simmons said. “My admissions role has been to assist the Project Renewal clients through BMCC’s application process, and then, help them enroll in BMCC’s Human Services 101 course.”

The aim is to have Project Renewal students accepted as fully matriculated students. So far, several of the students are set to do just that.

Poised for growth

For now, each Thursday evening throughout this spring semester, Greenwood travels to Project Renewal offices on Varick Street where she teaches 11 students Human Services 101.

“I’ve always thought our BMCC students were special and I love teaching in our Human Services program, but the students at Project Renewal have simply blown me away,” Greenwood said. “Project Renewal works with some of the most vulnerable populations in New York City, and they have inspired me with their honesty and perseverance.”

Greenwood would like to see more BMCC classes taught at Project Renewal as well as similar agencies in New York City.

Training, education for higher wages

Project Renewal has three main departments: healthcare, homes — including emergency, supportive and long-term housing — and finally jobs, which includes workforce development.

“We’ve had an internship program in social services for several years,” said Monica Foote, director of workforce development initiatives at Project Renewal. “The program trains people to work in homeless shelters and other supportive housing facilities to help them get into the social services industry.”

Although Project Renewal staff has seen several clients enter the social services field, more often than not, those clients get stuck on the lower end of the career ladder.

“Training alone can’t always help them get past that entry-level or supervisor position,” Foote explained. “You need an associate degree on track for a bachelor’s degree to be able to get promoted.”

As part of a new Project Renewal career advancement program that started in 2021, Foote and other staff members began discussing ways to bring in an educational component into their workforce development programs. After some online research, Foote landed on the BMCC Human Services webpage and then reached out to Rose.

“We are looking to support our clients long-term,” Foote said. “Minimum wage or entry-level jobs don’t get people out of poverty. Long-term career training and advancement does.”

Project Renewal’s client population skews older; around 60% are currently or formerly homeless and around 40% have justice involvement backgrounds.

“Higher education is a big barrier for a lot of our clients,” Foote said. “Some of them don’t have high school diplomas, and many that do were through non-traditional routes.”

Yvette Mason, director of Next Step at Project Renewal, said the agency provides clients with added support while they are taking the class.

“Many of our clients have gone through so much and they may doubt whether or not they can do this, so we’re making it obtainable and achievable for them to enter the higher education sphere,” Mason said.

There’s more to the story! Read the full article in CC Daily.

Cody Lyon

is a staff writer in the Borough of Manhattan Community College (CUNY) Office of Public Affairs.