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Know Your Rights
Source: The Wall Street Journal
Subject: Profiles of MRNY
Type: Media Coverage

Antipoverty Groups Give Mayor Wide Berth

Many See Mayor as an Ally and Don’t Want to Jeopardize His Progress.

Antipoverty groups that once stood as City Hall’s staunchest critics have lowered their voices since New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took office, giving him the benefit of the doubt even as problems such as homelessness have worsened.

Nonprofits like the Coalition for the Homeless, the New York City Coalition Against Hunger and Make The Road New York, among others, were persistent thorns in the side of former Mayor Michael Bloomberg , whom they blamed for failing to confront the growing gap between the wealthy and the poor.

Now, these same groups are slow to criticize Mr. de Blasio, who is staking his mayoralty on addressing inequality. Many see the mayor as an ally and say they don’t want to jeopardize his progress by expressing disagreements or frustrations publicly.

“You’re getting access to the inside,” said Elsie McCabe Thompson, the president of the New York City Mission Society, an antipoverty nonprofit. “Why do you need to protest on the steps of City Hall to get their attention when you can walk in the front door?”

Leaders of antipoverty organizations say there is no need to push the mayor publicly. On homelessness, for example, which has grown to more than 58,000 people staying in shelters each night, antipoverty groups have won commitments from the administration, including a new rental-subsidy and a promise to place 750 families in public-housing each year.

But others say the groups risk abdicating their most important role: speaking up for the most vulnerable New Yorkers.

“People need to fight to be independent. We have to stay true to the people we represent,” said Bertha Lewis, a de Blasio ally and president of the Black Institute, a research group focusing on policies affecting minorities. “That is our job no matter who is in office.”

“You don’t always have to have a rally,” she said. “But you can’t just go silent when something isn’t right, either.”

When 3-year-old Jeida Torres was beaten to death in a city homeless shelter in October, the death seemed to underscore the challenges of keeping safe a record number of homeless families in the city.

But asked how the city could better protect such children, the once-vocal groups tread carefully. The Children’s Aid Society said it couldn’t find anyone who could speak about the issue. The Care for the Homeless declined to comment. A spokesman for the Coalition for the Homeless declined to comment about the case over the phone. Later, that group issued a statement from its president, Mary Brosnahan, saying she hoped the city would take “sensible” steps to prevent similar tragedies.

A spokeswoman for Henry Street Settlement, known for its more than centurylong advocacy on behalf of the city’s poor, said its executive director would rather talk about something else. “Unfortunately, he does not want to be interviewed about this subject,” Susan LaRosa, the spokeswoman, wrote in an email in the days after Jeida’s death. “I hope we can work together soon on a less controversial topic.”

David Garza, executive director of Henry Street Settlement, said through a spokeswoman later that he didn’t comment because he had, “no proximity or knowledge whatsoever of the details or circumstances of the case.”

Ms. Brosnahan, of the Coalition for the Homeless, said in a phone interview that her group’s response to inquiries about Jeida’s death was “more a matter of logistics,” which were challenging because she was receiving conflicting reports about the incident. She said she “will not hesitate” to speak up if the de Blasio administration loses its way on homelessness.

In October, Make the Road New York, which advocates for poor and immigrant New Yorkers, said it would protest the city’s bid for the Democratic National Convention—an event for which Mr. de Blasio is lobbying hard—over the party’s failure to secure an overhaul of immigration laws. A day later, the group canceled the rally, later citing bad weather.

Javier Valdez, co-executive director of Make the Road New York, said he spoke to a de Blasio administration official about the protest, but wasn’t pressured to back down.

Joel Berg, executive director of the New York City Coalition Against Hunger, was often blunt in his dim assessment about Mr. Bloomberg and his policies, calling him out of touch.

But at an October rally to push the mayor to offer free breakfast in the classroom—a program Mr. de Blasio said during his campaign he supported—Mr. Berg demurred when asked if he was disappointed about the lack of action, saying he was “thrilled” with the mayor’s progress in fighting hunger.

Later, Mr. Berg said it “makes no sense” to criticize the mayor over a single issue when he had “done more for our issues in the last year than his two predecessors did in the previous two decades.” Mr. Berg added that he plans to “fervently” push the mayor on the breakfast program.

Over the past year, the city’s antipoverty groups have developed close ties with City Hall.

New York City Coalition Against Hunger, for example, presented its annual hunger survey this year at a city office for the first time, alongside city officials in what it called, “a new partnership between the de Blasio administration and advocates.”

Mr. de Blasio appointed Steven Banks, the former attorney-in-chief of the Legal Aid Society and a longtime critic of Mr. Bloomberg, as commissioner of the city’s welfare agency, the Human Resources Administration.

When asked if the relationship between City Hall and nonprofits was too close, mayoral spokesman Phil Walzak said: “Fighting income inequality is one of Mayor de Blasio’s most urgent priorities, and this administration is proud to forge partnerships with the city’s nonprofit community to lift up more New Yorkers.”

For former Bloomberg officials, sensitive to accusations their administration failed on poverty, the sudden restraint from groups who regularly offered scathing criticism of Mr. Bloomberg is maddening. “There is politics and partisanship in the hearts of advocacy groups for the poor, just like any other advocacy group,” said Robert Doar, a commissioner of the Human Resources Administration under Mr. Bloomberg.

But the advocates say this mayor is different. “I know Bill,” said Ms. McCabe Thompson of the New York City Mission Society. “His heart is in the right place.”

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