Volume 20, Number 45 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | March 23 - 29, 2011

Program helps vulnerable students in a single stop

BY Helaina Hovitz

Anthony Rose, 35, lives in a shelter and often misses meals because he is in class. He has no living family and a minor criminal record.

When he moved to Jacksonville in 2006, a friend sold him an iPod, which he took to a pawnshop. A month later, the cops knocked on his door, said the iPod had been stolen and brought him in. He spent six months in prison, during which time his apartment was burglarized; his television, clothes, money and schoolbooks were stolen.

Imagine you are a student faced with these choices: to buy your books or buy groceries for your family and pay for health insurance or a MetroCard so you can get to class. When you struggle for basic necessities, it is difficult, if not almost impossible, to stay in school. Meanwhile, daily inconveniences such as a sick child or a late paycheck are anything but minor in the lives of students like the 22,500 enrolled at the Borough of Manhattan Community College. They can derail an education. All of this is why the free services that Single Stop USA offers on campus are so crucial.

Single Stop USA connects low-income students and their families to public benefits including food stamps, legal services, health insurance, child care services and tax credits. The program, co-founded by C.E.O. Elizabeth Mason and the Robin Hood Foundation in 2001, works with the Association of Community College Trustees to eliminate the barriers to getting a college education for working class and poor New Yorkers.

A decade after it launched, the program is changing lives on a daily basis—and in many cases, saving them. Deborah Harte is the program coordinator for the B.M.C.C. Single Stop. Each day, students invade her office in droves. Last week a student, and single mother of a four–year-old boy, sat in Harte’s office in tears, overwhelmed at the prospect of finding an extra $50 a week to pay someone to take her child to and from school while she attended classes. Meanwhile, a 17-year-old freshman wanted to try out for the school’s soccer team, but needed a physical in order to join the team and had no health insurance.

Statistics for community college students are particularly devastating. A mere 31 percent of community college students who set out to earn a degree actually end up completing it — despite the fact that getting a degree can be the critical factor in exiting poverty. According to the 2010 Census, people with a Bachelor’s Degree earn an average of $26,000 more than people who don’t have one. “We research and use our resources to make sure everybody who walks through the door leaves with what they need,” Harte said. Her colleagues, Lisa Simms and Kim Witherspoon, are the only Single Stop staff on site.

There are four Medicaid interviewers on site at any given time, but if a student doesn’t qualify for health coverage, Harte and her staff help them either obtain Health and Hospitals Corporation options or refer them to Columbia Presbyterian’s Young Men’s and Family Planning clinics. They tap all of their resources to assure that all students who walk through the door are on their way to getting help. If a student is struggling but doesn’t qualify for benefits, either because they live outside of the five boroughs or because they are not citizens, Single Stop will call agencies on the student’s behalf and connect them with food pantries, healthcare centers and information on how to enter housing lotteries.

“In a way, we’re really social workers,” explained Harte. “When the tears end, we figure out a plan to help them balance their lives.”

So far over 200 students have received financial counseling and have been taught how to generate and navigate credit reports, make contacts, write sample letters to creditors, create budgets, open savings accounts with student-friendly institutions and learn to invest with stocks and bonds.

Single Stop USA helps fund Food Bank for New York City to provide B.M.C.C.’s on-campus tax preparation services from trained and certified preparers. Since opening its office for tax preparation, the program has served approximately 1,800 students.

Many students take advantage of the benefit screening. Using the Benefits Enrollment Network (B.E.N.), Single Stop coordinators verify student eligibility for a wide spectrum of benefits, tax credits and services such as food stamps. “We make the waiting period as short as possible [to help with] issues that can’t wait, like legal counseling or food stamps,” says Harte, who asks students for their demographic information and estimated income to determine eligibility for a variety of programs.

“It takes half an hour for them to complete services here that would take at least four hours of waiting at any city agency, and the staff are so nice,” says student Bianca Salcedo, 26. “People at city agencies are always skeptical and hesitant to help you. They’re incredibly judgmental and look at you like you’ve done something wrong.”

B.M.C.C. offers free child care on campus so that students can drop off a child while they attend classes, and for a couple of extra hours if they need time to study. Ten years after arriving in New York from the Dominican Republic in 1999, Bianca Salcedo became pregnant with twins, now 21-month old Jaylen and Jaslene. She entered the school’s work-study program and saw information about Single Stop on the program’s website. The program helped connect her with a daycare facility that cares for both children from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. for a fee of $20 a month, allowing her to work and attend classes.

Now Salcedo is finishing up her last semester at the college and continuing her education studying forensic psychology at John Jay University. “Where I come from we have a saying, you only ask what you yourself give,” she said. “If I want my kids to graduate college one day, I need to do it, too.”

Single Stop’s free legal counseling has been the most widely utilized service at the Chambers Street campus. Many students have outstanding criminal and civil charges or lawsuits, some are current victims of domestic violence, and, most commonly, many students have legal immigration issues.

B.M.C.C.’s Single Stop offices have also become a safe haven where students can sit and reflect quietly or receive guidance from any of the three women.

“I don’t trust anyone in the world except for the Single Stop staff. I can’t believe there are actually people out there who are trying to do what’s best for me. They gave me faith in people again,” Rose said.

The former graffiti artist has decided to redirect his passion for art and for computers by enrolling in B.M.C.C.’s graphic design classes. His current aspiration is to work either as a photographer or a cameraman. Harte referred him to the College Opportunity to Prepare for Employment, a C.U.N.Y. program that provides job preparation and placement services to enrolled students. He still calls the shelter home, but Harte and her staff are working hard to help him change that.

“You can’t stay on the surface with these students. These are real lives, and it still amazes me that though they’re homeless, they’re hungry, they don’t quit,” Harte said. “If they’re not quitting, then there’s no way we’re quitting on them.”

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