Inside the Effort to Battle Hunger and Homelessness in Westchester

Amid inflation and a lingering pandemic, Westchester County's social service agencies are busier than ever.

About three years ago, Sylvia Hamer, the executive director of HOPE Community Services in New Rochelle, began giving the food pantry staff a regular reminder: Don’t judge a visitor by their vehicle.

“It doesn’t matter what car they have — that was their life before the pandemic,” Hamer would say. “And life is different now for some people.”

Workers at 914Cares, a social service nonprofit based in White Plains, receive diapers through the United Way’s Essential Goods for Basic Needs Program. The initiative provides more than $5 million worth of new items such as school supplies, diapers, blankets, pillows and socks donated to families struggling to make ends meet
Workers at 914Cares, a social service nonprofit based in White Plains, receive diapers through the United Way’s Essential Goods for Basic Needs Program. The initiative provides more than $5 million worth of new items such as school supplies, diapers, blankets, pillows and socks donated to families struggling to make ends meet. Photo courtesy of United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

Although the lows of the pandemic, like shutdowns, mass layoffs, and steady eviction notices, have receded, many long-term impacts persist. Westchester residents continue to face an uncertain economy, and references to inflation now pepper just about every conversation on household finances. “Some folks are still not back where they were before the pandemic hit,” Hamer says. “They’re employed, but underemployed.”

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Indeed, as of late summer, Westchester’s vulnerable aren’t a small minority — they’re bordering on a majority. “Forty percent of the population lives in poverty or paycheck-to-paycheck,” explains Tom Gabriel, president and CEO of United Way of Westchester and Putnam.

Gabriel notes that 13 percent of those residents live below the poverty line. The remaining 27 percent classify as what Gabriel calls ALICE: “asset limited, income constrained, employed.” These individuals and families may technically be above the poverty line, but their paycheck is spent as soon as it comes in. Savings accounts, investments, and college and emergency funds seem unattainable, if not outright impossible to these residents. The poverty threshold differs depending on family size and year, too. In 2020, the threshold for a four-person family with two young children was $26,246 in annual income, according to Westchester Index, an initiative of the Westchester Community Foundation.

United Way regularly publishes an ALICE report for the region. The most recent report shows how the climbing costs of rent, utilities, food, transportation, and other expenses leave many county households in the red. Gabriel puts the problem bluntly: “Poverty has increased in this community. It’s frightening.”

As a result, Westchester’s social service agencies — many of them plucky nonprofits with small budgets and even smaller staffs — are busier than ever before. They’re expanding existing programs, introducing new ones, and clocking an increasing number of hours to address a long list of issues. Oftentimes, hunger and homelessness are at the top of that list.

“What keeps us up at night?,” asks Karen Erren, president of the Elmsford-based nonprofit Feeding Westchester. “Food and money.”

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A Rise in Hunger

Feeding Westchester has a three-decade history of helping the region’s hungry. “Our mission is to nourish neighbors in the fight against hunger,” Erren explains.

That mission might seem out of place to some. After all, Westchester has among the highest median household incomes in the country ($105,387 annually, per the U.S. Census Bureau), along with some of the most coveted real estate and schools in the nation. “There are still many, many people who are unaware or find it difficult to believe there is hunger in Westchester County,” Erren says. And yet, Feeding Westchester has never been so necessary.

Prior to the pandemic, the nonprofit distributed 10 million pounds of food annually. Then, suddenly, in late spring of 2020, the team doubled its distribution overnight. More recently, in the fiscal year ending in June 2023, the organization distributed a whopping 21 million pounds of food — which equates to about 17 million meals. About 40 percent of that food was fresh fruits and vegetables, Erren adds, of which Feeding Westchester is deeply proud.

Seventeen million is a stunning number, as Westchester’s entire population is under 1 million, but it’s still not enough. “We focus on maintaining that increased volume because we know the need is there,” Erren says. “That really drives us.”

Erren, just like Hamer, notes that those seeking food assistance aren’t always who you may expect: “You see folks in work uniforms, moms with young children.” The underlying problem, she explains, is the decreasing value of the dollar. “When you think about cost of living and inflation, it’s really hard to live self-sufficiently.”

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Another local nonprofit battling hunger is United Way of Westchester and Putnam. Headquartered in White Plains and founded in 1965, the organization “mobilizes strategic partnerships and leverages resources to create a more equitable community,” says Gabriel. Many of those partnerships are with smaller food banks across the county. In 2022, United Way administered almost $2 million in grants to 79 local nonprofit partners.

“During the pandemic, we saw a 200 percent increase in call volume related to food insecurity,” Gabriel says. “And that mirrors what we heard from community partners.” He notes food pantries around Westchester also saw three times more people in need of assistance as COVID spread.

homelessness
Adobe Stock/ Brian

HOPE experienced the same trend. At the pandemic’s height, the organization had lines that circled their building, according to Hamer. “We were feeding 900 families once a week during COVID — and that was just our pantry,” she notes. HOPE’s soup kitchen, which was grab-and-go during COVID, would give out an additional 200 dinners each night.

But when the pandemic receded, another challenge took its place. “[Hunger] spiked again last year with inflation,” Hamer explains. “It was amazing how the lines started circling again.”

Indeed, from 2021 to 2022, grocery prices increased a staggering 11 percent, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. Historically, grocery prices increase only two percent annually. Eggs, chicken, fruits, and vegetables all saw major price hikes. And, notably, cereal became 13 percent more expensive. “Cereal is a staple for families,” Hamer explains. “Moms don’t just give cereal out for breakfast. You can give cereal out any time of day, have it for dinner — plus put it in a snack bag.”

Westchester residents continue to face an uncertain economy, and references to inflation now pepper just about every conversation on household finances.

Against this landscape, local nonprofits became — and continue to be — more dogged and creative. HOPE doubled down on their services. “During COVID, we served five nights a week instead of three nights a week,” Hamer says. And farther north, United Way launched a new initiative in July 2020. The organization’s Ride United Last-Mile Delivery program leverages DoorDash to bring produce and packaged food directly to residents’ doorsteps. The program now delivers half a million pounds of produce annually and celebrated its 50,000th delivery last year.

Ryan Brisk (Vice President, Operations and Procurement), Christopher McGregor (Manager, Program Services) and Nancy Lyons (Director, Volunteer Services) of Feeding Westchester pose in front of boxes going to the agency’s child feeding programs
Ryan Brisk (Vice President, Operations and Procurement), Christopher McGregor (Manager, Program Services) and Nancy Lyons (Director, Volunteer Services) of Feeding Westchester pose in front of boxes going to the agency’s child feeding programs. Photo courtesy of Feeding Westchester.

A Need for Housing

Food is one challenge for Westchester residents pushing against a tough economy; shelter is another. “It just costs way too much to buy a home or rent a home,” Gabriel says.

The average monthly rent for a family with two young children in Westchester is $1,651, according to United Way — and even that “would be a steal in a lot of communities,” Gabriel says. Indeed, peruse two-bedroom rentals in Yonkers using Zillow and you see many prices upward of $2,500. In Rye, you see upward of $3,000.

Gabriel notes that these costs can drive vulnerable Westchester residents out of the county entirely. “It’s why people move to Putnam and Dutchess,” he says.

Few people and organizations understand this problem better than Anahaita Kotval, CEO of Lifting Up Westchester, a White Plains nonprofit battling homelessness. “We do quite a few things, but they’re all centered around the unhoused,” Kotval explains. The organization operates shelters for men and women, runs a community kitchen, and operates supportive housing programs for people who need long-term housing support. Lifting Up Westchester also runs an ambitious youth program to “help [kids] escape the cycle of poverty,” Kotval says. The nonprofit helps guide Westchester adolescents to high school graduation, and then college or vocational school after that.

The organization has seen a lot — it was founded in the 1970s — but “COVID changed everything,” Kotval says. “COVID was a validation of what we know: When you have a crisis, people who fall through the cracks are those without a stable place to live.”

Lifting Up Westchester stands out for not closing or changing any programs, even at the height of the pandemic. Still, those who depend on its services faced major challenges over the past few years. “It was so difficult to quarantine, to get vaccinated, and to get tested when you’re in a shelter system,” Kotval says. Remote schooling also put already at-risk students in a bind, she adds.

Additionally, COVID reinforced a long-standing problem that exists within many shelters. “It crystallized that a drop-in shelter — where you’re not at the same place every day — is terrible,” Kotval says, stressing the importance of routine and consistency. At Lifting Up Westchester, once an individual is admitted, they have their own bed and a mailing address. “It helps people get on their feet in a stable and effective way.”

Sylvia Hamer and HOPE also have a comprehensive perspective on homelessness in Westchester. Although the nonprofit began in 1984 with a focus on hunger (HOPE stands for “Help Our People Eat”), it has since launched several housing programs that are now essential to New Rochelle, the second-largest city in Westchester and seventh-largest in New York State.

Lifting Up Westchester supporters and volunteers dropping off Easter baskets for youth in the organization’s afterschool tutoring and mentoring program
Lifting Up Westchester supporters and volunteers dropping off Easter baskets for youth in the organization’s afterschool tutoring and mentoring program. Photo courtesy of Lifting Up Westchester.

“It’s really difficult for people to get apartments in Westchester, especially if you are someone who is below the poverty line,” Hamer explains. “And although landlords are not supposed to discriminate, we have landlords tell us outright that they don’t want kids [in the building], or they don’t want Section 8. That’s difficult to hear when you know people are sleeping on the street or getting evicted.”

The housing crisis has lessened a bit since the height of the pandemic, a trying time when 13 percent of the U.S. population was unemployed and Westchester nearly led the state in evictions. (The county was second only to New York City.) In 2021, more than 2,100 eviction notices were filed in the county, according to LoHud, with about half of those in Yonkers.

There have been bright spots since then, though. In September, after years of construction, a $51 million affordable housing project was completed in Peekskill. The building — located at 645 Main Street, just a short walk from the Metro North and Hudson River — features 82 apartments. In a statement, Governor Kathy Hochul said the project “marks the next step in our work to make Westchester County and all of New York state more livable and more affordable.” Elsewhere, in Yonkers and Tarrytown, applications opened this summer for affordable housing units.

But Hamer says the housing crisis won’t be solved in the immediate future. And Gabriel of United Way agrees. “‘It was the same 20 years ago, and it will be 20 years from now.”

COVID was a validation of what we know: When you have a crisis, people who fall through the cracks are those without a stable place to live.
—Anahaita Kotval
CEO, Lifting Up Westchester

Additional Challenges

Hunger and a lack of affordable housing are two of Westchester’s most pressing issues, but they’re hardly the only ones. Many residents are also struggling to purchase basic necessities, access vital healthcare services, afford the rising cost of childcare, and find employment. So local nonprofits are hustling to meet those needs, too.

Hygiene products like soap and shampoo, and sometimes even access to running water, can be out of reach for many, but HOPE came up with a novel solution in Showers of HOPE, a mobile shower facility. “We have a shower truck that goes around Westchester County,” Hamer says. “It’s mostly to houses of worship, because they don’t mind us using their water.” A related initiative, Suds & Duds, provides laundry detergent and laundromat services to the New Rochelle community.

In a similar vein, United Way recently contributed over $5 million worth of essential goods — items like new socks, blankets, and school supplies — to smaller nonprofits. “‘We also have a direct service component,” Gabriel says. The organization’s 211 helpline is a free resource for residents across the Hudson Valley and Long Island, answering callers’ questions about health, insurance, disasters, utilities, and other issues.

nonprofit
Adobe Stock / Brian

A familiar problem to parents across Westchester is daycare — both finding an available provider and paying for it. “Childcare costs are exorbitant,” Gabriel explains. In 2023, the average monthly cost for an infant to attend daycare full-time is $2,003, according to The Child Care Council of Westchester, a nonprofit that provides child care resources, referrals, and information to local parents. The average cost is even higher in many of the county’s larger municipalities, like Ossining and White Plains.

“Families are clamoring for some alternative option,” says Gabriel. “That’s why people want to work from home.” For those who can’t work from home, nonprofit after-school programs can be a lifeline. United Way currently runs a bilingual after-school program in Ossining called Education United, and will soon be expanding it to Greenburgh. The Ossining program serves about 200 children, providing free homework assistance, arts and crafts activities, and more. Boys and Girls Clubs and YMCAs across the county offer similar services.

Meanwhile, Lifting Up Westchester is helping residents who are struggling to find employment in a still-unpredictable economy. In October, the nonprofit launched a new employment service that provides skills assessment, training, clothes, transportation, and more. Coaching is also a key part of the program. “After all the effort to find the job, we want to make sure the placement sticks,” Kotval says.

United Way doesn’t yet have stats for its upcoming ALICE report, but Gabriel notes the early data shows “significant increases across the board” in hunger, lack of housing access, and other issues. “In a county as wealthy as Westchester, there is still such great need,” says Erren of Feeding Westchester.

But Westchester nonprofits are determined to meet that need. Soup kitchens like the one run by HOPE are open to anyone — “and we’ve had people come from as far away as Poughkeepsie,” Hamer says. The kitchen continues to feed more than 100 people each night and the food pantry now serves about 650 families regularly.

For that to continue, however, the whole county needs to pitch in. “We depend on donations,” Hamer says.

Related: How to Make a Difference in a Nonprofit Career in Westchester

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