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As United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) enters the New Year, we reflect on the successes and hardships that our member agencies encountered in 2012. UNH is a membership organization, consisting of 38 independent settlement houses and community centers in various neighborhoods in New York City. Our services reach over half a million low and moderate income residents each year. UNH works to strengthen and support the neighborhood-based model of providing social services, and does this through policy development, advocacy work, and capacity-building activities.

But first, the 100+ year old question: What is a settlement house? Also known as community centers, these agencies provide comprehensive social, educational and recreational services in specific neighborhoods – empowering residents and providing the tools to lead successful and productive lives.

Settlement houses sprang from the social reform movement in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, when groups of generally affluent volunteers “settled in” to urban neighborhoods around the country. The first settlement house in the United States was established 125 years ago on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Settlement house founders’ immediate goals were to help impoverished immigrants to become “Americanized,” but they quickly became champions for safer housing, improved public health and decent working conditions. Early settlement house leaders helped create the framework of the social safety net millions rely on today. These leaders fought intently to create change first in their neighborhoods – a foreshadowing of New York City’s popular “locavore” movement today – and then nationally and even internationally.

Settlement houses have continued to adapt over the last 125 years to meet the ever-changing needs of the communities they serve, and have become a support system that has earned the trust of local residents, government agencies and the philanthropic sector. These enduring models of social support are embedded in their communities, giving them a unique and intimate knowledge of the needs of their neighbors. That special connection with their communities is what gave settlement houses an unparalleled role and perspective when it came to offering relief to Hurricane Sandy survivors.

While acting as highly effective “first responders” in the weeks following the hurricane has been just another important community service on top of a year of meaningful work for these agencies – including offering quality child care and after-school programs for children of working families, operating thousands of units of low-income housing, and serving more than 1.5 million meals to residents in need – these nonprofit agencies are continually facing more and more challenges.

Shifts in funding trends, complex reporting requirements to both private donors and government funders, and new government contracts with restrictive mandates are a challenging reality for settlement houses. Historically, government helped support and maintain a safety net for low-income families by contracting with social services agencies to provide vital programming. However, with government deficits at the city, state and federal levels, services for people in need are often caught in the squeeze of deficit reduction.

Settlement houses have shown their resilience and relevance as trustworthy community hubs for over 100 years. We hope that cuts to core services by government are not the tip of an iceberg of even worse actions, but we know that these perilous times demand that UNH and other advocacy organizations continue to be the strongest possible voice for the important goal of helping all members of our communities.

At a recent Neighborhood Revitalization conference in Washington D.C., I heard a few buzz words that describe leading-edge community work. All of these terms could describe today’s settlement houses – anchor institutions that promote civic engagement and form sustainable communities. Let’s not leave these historic yet incredibly relevant and effective organizations out of the current conversation when it comes to sensible investment in social services. UNH agencies are often considered to have the most effective approach to “community building,” i.e., involving neighbors and residents in determining their own priorities and engaging them in working for local change. This approach will continue to produce stronger and safer neighborhoods and, ultimately, a greater New York City for
all of us.

Nancy Wackstein has been Executive Director of United Neighborhood Houses of New York (UNH) since 2002. UNH is the federation of the City’s 38 settlement houses and community centers. Prior to her UNH appointment, Ms. Wackstein was the Executive Director of Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, a settlement house on Manhattan’s East Side, for 11 years.

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