In the Shadows of Yankee Stadium,A Food Program Prays for Survival

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In the Shadows of Yankee Stadium,  A Food Program Prays for Survival

The Momentum Project, a food and nutrition program that serves hungry New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS through a network of meal sites in church basements, is praying for deliverance.  This will be the fourth year in a row where the fate of this 26-year-old program is at the mercy of New York City Council. 


The Bloomberg Administration has been determined to cut the funding for this critical program; were it not for the continued and considerable support of City Council, this program would have met an unfortunate demise quite a while ago.


Focused primarily and historically on serving individuals living with HIV/AIDS, the program has recently expanded to include a lunch program for other poor New Yorkers who are in need of sustenance.  Momentum operates in church facilities at four sites, offering family style sit-down meals as well as pantry bags for eligible low-income New Yorkers living with HIV/AIDS.  The Momentum Project provides lunch twice a week at two sites for the local community also in dire need of food.  Other services include: nutritional counseling,
substance abuse intervention, prevention education, mental health counseling, family  services, health and adherence education, housing and entitlements advocacy, pastoral counseling and health education.


Momentum was started in 1985 when a group of volunteers from two faith-based entities began serving dinner, distributing pantry bags, facilitating support groups, and collecting and offering clothing.  Momentum expanded its partnerships with other churches and synagogues, extending outreach into neighborhoods with considerable poverty and food needs and high HIV/AIDS prevalence. 


By 2009, Momentum was operating ten sites in four boroughs, providing services six days per week, and serving more than 40,000 hot meals and 29,000 pantry bags annually.  And while various funding reductions have reduced the total number of sites and staffing, the program continues to provide more than 30,000 hot meals and 25,000 pantry bags annually.


Since 2003, Momentum has served nearly 15,000 unique clients, and each month there are some 30 new persons added to the Momentum rolls; these numbers represent clients only – adding family members increases the numbers served.


Despite a significant decrease in funding over the past year, Momentum has experienced a 37 percent increase in meals served and almost a 50 percent increase in pantry bags distributed. 


A recent visit to Momentum’s Bronx site – located at the Church of God of Prophecy in the South Bronx, just blocks from the newly constructed Yankee stadium – reveals that without the program, many in the neighborhood would have nowhere to go for nutrition services.  While baseball fans enjoy season tickets at Yankee stadium that go for more than $21,000 a year, just around the corner some less fortunate New Yorkers struggle to find a way to ensure they don’t go to bed hungry, many of them families with children


Several clients told their stories of why they come to Momentum.


Darron Samuel Stitt has been a client at Momentum for 20 years.  He came to Momentum newly tested for HIV, isolated and in need of friends, and searching for a  place to get a good meal.   His experience has been, in his words “bittersweet” – most clients and friends that he remembers from those early days are “long gone,” having passed away. But, he says “The staff are a breath of fresh air.” 


Why does he keep coming to Momentum?


“I come to be around people who are like me. They have helped me to be okay with myself, to be okay with my status.  Now I am able to help someone else who is newly diagnosed and needs help. Momentum has helped me to live long and prosper” Stit said.  He also talked freely about how Momentum has helped him from homelessness and drug addiction to recovery.  He is now planning his return to school to secure a degree in social work.


Another, Gerry, has been a client since 1997.  When he was released from jail, Momentum was a place he could turn to for help.  He recalls first coming to Momentum’s site on 225th Street in the Bronx, which was closed last year because of budget cuts.


Momentum has been critical in supplementing his food stamps.   Without the food and pantry bags made available to him through Momentum, he knows he would run out of a way to pay for food before the end of the month.  With the cost of food rising, he says this role is now more important than ever for him. 


“Momentum helps to stretch my food budget through the whole month” Gerry says.  Commenting on the pantry bags he takes home, “They give you just the right amount of food you need.”


The key to Gerry’s success has been to “think positive, take care of yourself.”  Momentum plays an important role in this.


Tyrone Tucker has been a client of Momentum for about seven years.  He comes to the Bronx site with his son and daughter, whom he recently secured custody of again.  He came to Momentum from the SRO hotel system. Momentum connected him through a VillageCare caseworker, who helped him with the Administration for Children’s Services in getting his children back, and also getting his life back. 


Momentum staff assisted him with finding an apartment and helped him to navigate the system. “My struggle would have been ten times harder without Momentum” he says.  “Lots of clients are struggling with substance abuse.  The staff at Momentum doesn’t judge you; they are always willing to help.  When you’re HIV positive, many people push away.  The Momentum staff doesn’t do that.”


City Budget and Momentum


On February 2, 2012, Mayor Michael Bloomberg released his February Financial Plan.   This is not the official proposed budget for FY 2013, but is considered a window into what the Mayor will propose when he releases his Executive Budget sometime in May.  While, there are no additional cuts to health or social services, the Mayor chose to ignore any City Council programs that were restored as part of the final budget negotiated from the previous year.  Without affirmative Council action, all restorations from the previous year would be discontinued in FY 2013.


At this time, funding to The Momentum Project is considered a City Council restoration and will require City Council action to fully fund and support for the foreseeable future.  As in the past three years, City Council support will be necessary for funding to Human Resource Administration’s (HRA) HIV nutrition program (which goes solely to Momentum) to continue.


Unfortunately, Momentum is not alone in this struggle.  Several HIV PEGs (Plan to Eliminate the Gap) were not included in the mayor’s preliminary FY2013 budget that had been restored by City Council in FY 2012.  For these programs to continue in FY 2013, City Council restorations must be renewed.  They are:


Food & Nutrition (The Momentum Project) - $995,000

  • Supportive Housing - $5.086 million
  • HIV/AIDS Rental Assistance - $1.257 million
  • HIV/AIDS Prevention - $1.406 million


In addition to City Council restorations not included in the Mayor’s preliminary budget, as part of the negotiated budget for FY 2012, the City Council did not restore funding for broker’s fee payments.  Many clients have experienced major challenges with finding a new apartment because of this policy.


The HIV community will be pushing the Council to restore this funding (Broker’s Fee Payments - $4.8 million) along with re-approving restorations from this year in the FY 2013 budget.