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Controversy at City's Neighborhood Assistance Office

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In a picture taken during the spring, staff at the Neighborhood Assistance Office
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PATERSON, NJ – The city’s Neighborhood Assistance Office at 125 Ellison Street has become a popular spot for people enrolled in a state-run welfare-to-work program.

At the assistance office, not only do folks fulfill the service requirements that allow them to receive stipends under the Community Work Experience Program (CWEP), but they also provide free labor to city government and get a chance to help people who have fallen on hard times like themselves.

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“Most of the people who come here stay because they enjoy working with the public,’’ said Shakinya Taylor, a 38-year-old Paterson resident. “It gets so busy that sometimes even though you’re supposed to leave at one or two o’clock, you don’t because you see people in the waiting room and you don’t want to tell them to come back tomorrow.’’

But city officials say the number of CWEP clients assigned to the Neighborhood office has exceeded the amount of work space available as well as the workload. On Wednesday, city officials told the Neighborhood office workers that most of them would have to find someplace else to do their state-mandated service work.

“They have 17 people, and in my opinion, that is a lot of people,’’ said Lanisha Makle, Paterson’s Director of Community Development, which oversees the Neighborhood office. “Therefore, I requested that we reduce the number of people.’’

Makle said she told the office’s coordinator, Nancy Grier, that she believed only three or four people were needed from the welfare program and offered Grier the chance to prove otherwise. “I’m not being unreasonable,’’ said Makle. “I told her that if she thinks she needs more than that, she can write a justification about why she needs them and an explanation of what they do and I’ll review it.’’

Makle’s decision has sparked outrage among the staff at the Neighborhood office, some of whom say they are being mistreated and demeaned by city officials, including Mayor Jeffrey Jones.

“They’ve shown nothing but total disdain and disrespect for us,’’ said Bilal Hakeem.

“It’s horrific,’’ said Melissa Rosario. “We’re being treated like we’re lower class citizens.’’

Grier, a city employee for 25 years, is the only person on the Paterson payroll who works at the Neighborhood Assistance Office. She refers to the rest of the staff as “volunteers.” But most of them are there as part of their service requirement under the CWEP program. In return for the time they spend at the city office, they receive government assistance stipends. The office does have some volunteers who are not on the CWEP program, according to people who work there.

The Neighborhood office is where struggling Patersonians go when they need all sorts of help, including welfare applications, food assistance, job referrals and affordable apartment listings. Grier says the workload at her office is massive.

Various “volunteers” serve different roles, Grier said. For example, some have experience navigating the job market with felonies on their record and they help clients with that. Others handle job referrals or apartment placement. Rosario is invaluable because she is bilingual. Some of them do tasks like answer the telephones or clean the floors.

“I just don’t know how you get rid of volunteers,’’ said Grier.

Councilman Kenneth Morris, who oversees community development, said he was displeased with the situation. “I don’t know about you, but if I have access to free labor, I’m going to find something for them to do,’’ said Morris. Morris also said he didn’t understand why the city would cut the CWEP clients off from service assignments that helped them get “life-sustaining” stipends.

But Makle said she has been working with the county social service staff, representatives of Paterson non-profits groups and municipal officials to ensure that people reassigned from the Neighborhood office would find other service positions – including some within municipal government - so they could keep their stipends.

The city also decided to allow the entire CWEP crew to continue at the Neighborhood office until the end of the month to all more time to set up other placements. Originally, the changes were supposed to happen effective August 12.

Makle said the impending changes at the Neighborhood office stemmed from her ongoing assessments of different city divisions under her authority. “I’ve been going through the department looking for things that need to be streamlined. I just got to Neighborhood Assistance.’’

Two weeks ago, Makle began asking the CWEP staff to adhere to the same dress code that applies to people on the Paterson payroll. Neighborhood Assistance shares offices on Ellison Street with other divisions of the community development department, including those that deal with developer interested in building housing in the city.

“When people see them in the office, they see them as representatives of the city of Paterson,’’ Makle said. “I would like them to come in looking neat and clean.’’ When asked if the CWEP staff was not meeting that standard previously, Makle said, “”Some were. Some weren’t.’’

But Grier said the casual dress helped her “volunteers” develop a rapport with clients at the assistance office. “They don’t understand the clientele I deal with,’’ said Grier. “I deal with people with social issues, they come from the street. They’re not going to trust somebody dress in a suit.’’

The uproar caused by the CWEP decision prompted Makle to come in during her vacation on Wednesday to meet with the affected workers. “I was able to express to them exactly what my position was,’’ said Makle. “Some of them even said there are too many of them there.’’

After the meeting with Makle, a handful of the CWEP workers went down the street to city hall to see the mayor.

One of them was Rosario, who said Jones engaged in a demeaning one-man skit criticizing their telephone etiquette. “Then the man had the audacity to ask me if I know how to read,’’ said Rosario. “I may not be college educated, but I am well-read.’’

Next, Rosario said, Jones quizzed the CWEP workers about their computer skills: “He said, ‘Do you know how to do PowerPoint? Do you know how to do WordPerfect?’ and I asked him, ‘Do you have a training program for us?’’’

Jones did not return a phone message seeking his comment for this story. Makle disputed the CWEP workers’ assertions that the mayor belittled them. “I was in that same meeting with the mayor and I didn’t hear that,’’ she said. “I’m not sure where they got that from.’’

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