Built to serve: An Intersectional Approach

After COVID-19 first struck New York City, West Harlem Group Assistance, Inc. (WHGA) stepped up as part of Harlem’s first line of defense. Since 1971, the organization has supported Harlem residents in the face of challenging living experiences. Today, almost 50 years later, WHGA stands ready to serve. COVID-19 has devastated developing communities. Data shows that public and affordable housing communities in NYC have been the worst affected. Nonetheless, the crisis has propelled WHGA to act strategically, think critically, and harness all available resources to create impact in a myriad of ways.

WHGA and affiliate sites have implemented virtual wellness checks as part of their programming in order to assess and address resident and client needs including rental issues, financial literacy, and education for school-aged children. “During this time of uncertainty, continuous outreach and engagement is needed to continue to build community and instill a sense of normalcy in the midst of this crisis,” said Stacey Cohen, director of Program Operations, Social Services Department, Randolph Houses.

However, WHGA’s impact extends beyond its clients. The CfHF (Communities for Healthy Food) at WHGA program, which was introduced in 2014 to address food insecurity in the community, has been mobilized as one of 20 Community Response Partners with the Food Bank for NYC. At the CfHF at WHGA relief hub, residents gain unrestricted access to frozen and dry foods, personal protective equipment, baby food, cleaning supplies, and fresh meals served daily in collaboration with Red Rabbit. A New York Times poll shows that 50 percent of NYC residents now worry about food access. Due to this sharp increase in food insecurity, the food hub has recorded service to over 130,000 clients since opening, with service to a record-breaking 12,000 clients in April 2020. The site now runs on an extended schedule, including priority time slots for the elderly and the differently abled.

WHGA was formed to empower residents to gain access to affordable, decent, and safe housing in Harlem. The organization has developed over 1,800 housing units to date. Despite drastic changes to the industry’s operations during COVID-19, WHGA continues to uphold its core mission and will open one of its newest rehabilitation projects, 211 W147th Street, this summer — making additional affordable housing units available for low- and middle-income residents.

“It has been challenging to maintain continuity while fulfilling our duties. COVID-19 came as a big speed bump in our ongoing quest to revive, rejuvenate, and reinvest in a Harlem that was critically underserved for years,” Donald Notice, WHGA executive director shared. “However, we keep working and we continue to assess the residents’ needs through heightened outreach efforts which we will optimize to create more results. It is important to underscore COVID-19 slowed our journey to upliftment, but it did not stop it.”