As pandemic rages on, group homes seek donations for front line staff

Staff at an Eden II facility.
Eden II

A Staten Island group home is soliciting donations for its staffers, who have had to transform into front line medical workers almost overnight, management said.

“Our staff has been unbelievably amazing,” said Joanne Gerenser, Executive Director of Eden II programs, which runs a network of support services for people with autism on Staten Island. 

According to Gerenser, the pandemic has overturned the daily tasks of the direct service providers that care for the residents of the group homes. Eight of Eden II’s residents have tested positive for the coronavirus, Gerenser said, but all have managed to stay out of the hospital — which has turned the residential facilities into around-the-clock care centers. 

“Our nurses need to receive some kind of medals of honor,” Gerenser said. 

Staff are tasked with looking after restless participants and providing them with structure for hours on end while they are unable to go outside — a nearly herculean task, according to Gerenser, a speech pathologist.

“I used to do these 30-minute sessions, and making sure that your session provided structure so that your session went well, sometimes was really challenging,” she said. “I sit there sometimes at my desk and I think about these direct care workers, who have to now provide structure 16 hours in a row, in a house, often not able to go anywhere — it just boggles my mind.”

Direct service providers in group homes make little more than minimum wage due to a decade of budget cuts from the state that have left most homes treading water even before the pandemic hit. 

A staff member works with a participant at Eden II.Eden II.

“They’re not paid for the pandemic,” said Sarah Collins, a Brooklyn native whose brother Joey lives in an Eden II home. “They’re basically working as health care providers but have not been given any formal training prior to this.”

The staff at Eden II have had to dip into their own bank accounts to replace clothing destroyed by bleach after disinfecting themselves, according to Collins.

The fundraiser, which has netted roughly $16,000 towards its goal of $20,000 as of April 29, aims to soften that blow, and provide the workers with the hazard pay their employers are unable to give them. They have also received support from Fare it Forward, a fundraising effort that aims to provide front line workers with free transit fares. 

“Most of our direct care workers are making just above minimum wage, and the idea that we’ve now asked them to become healthcare workers and put them in really complicated situations, it just doesn’t feel right that we’re not able to provide them with some type of increased money,” said Gerenser. 

With the state budget full of austerity measures, group homes can only expect more funding cuts, Gerenser said, so fundraising may be the only route workers have to an increase in pay. 

“The only way we’re going to be able to get money in the hands of our workers and thank them for what they are doing is through fundraisers like this, so it’s been very rewarding seeing how many people are stepping up,” she said. 

This story is part of an ongoing series about group homes on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, and the pandemic’s impact on those with developmental disabilities.