11/15/2012 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Missing the Mark With Donations

Saki Knafo AOL/Huffington Post

Rockaway residents ignore mounds of soggy donated clothing in the middle of the street and wait for services to be restored to their homes. Photo | Hella Winston.

On Friday, November 9, Schuster Institute Senior Fellow Hella Winston made her fourth visit since Hurricane Sandy to the Rockaway Peninsula in Queens, one of New York City's hardest-hit neighborhoods. Two weeks after the storm, electric power is not restored and residents have abundant needs. Winston writes about what she observed and learned from the people there with whom she spoke.

By Hella Winston
November 9, 2012

On Friday I went to the eastern section of the Rockaway Peninsula with three researchers affiliated with the City University of New York (CUNY). Their goal is to record where goods and services are needed and where they are being deployed. Later, the CUNY researchers will update these locations on their online map in an effort to accurately align the needs of the community with the efforts of individuals, organizations and government agencies that are assisting with the recovery and reconstruction effort here.

View Rockaway Emergency Response in a larger map

On my prior visit, it was clear that much of what was being donated -- or, in certain cases, it was more like what was being dumped into the community -- is not going to be useful or even desirable to residents, like the piles of old shoes we saw in the Occupy Sandy distribution center, or the mounds of unsorted clothing that were sprawled out on wet grass in front of a church.

"I had bedbugs once," a young woman from the neighborhood told me, shaking her arms as if to fend off imaginary insects as she looked over at a picked-through heap of shirts and pants on the ground next to a "pop up" food distribution site where volunteers were cooking chicken." And I do not want to get them again. They are nasty."

Someone at that site suggested that coat racks and hangers would be useful for sorting and keeping the donated clothing clean. That's a good idea, no doubt, but I can't help wonder why residents of the six-story brick buildings and high rises, whose belongings were not ruined by flooding, are being deluged with used clothes. Their most pressing needs are for electricity, heat, flushable toilets and access to transportation.

Is this mismatch of supplies-to-needs merely ignorance of New York's geography and neighborhoods? Or is it related to a skewed media focus that has led people to believe that everyone affected by Hurricane Sandy has lost all of their belongings to the raging sea? Or is donating old clothing just something that well-meaning people do reflexively to "help" whenever disaster strikes -- especially when it strikes poor people? (I was told that in a neighboring, largely affluent Orthodox Jewish community, many people there actually bought brand new coats and sweaters to donate to families in their area who had been hard hit by the storm, many of whom did suffer major damage to their homes and possessions.)

The landscape has definitely changed since the last time I was here: a number of New York City Housing Authority buildings now have humming generators with electrical chords snaking through windows. We were told that some places were getting electricity, thanks to the generators, but still had no heat. Many more floodlights are now positioned at intersections along Beach Channel Drive, and there is a much bigger official presence on the ground: more police, more National Guard troops, and, most notably, a parking lot filled with ambulances ready to be deployed to residents of this slender peninsula who are in need of medical treatment.

A friend of mine who often drives through the neighborhood to avoid traffic on the nearby highway said there was more activity on the streets than he'd ever seen. He also mused that it is probably the first time in decades that white people aren't locking their car doors as they drive into and through this poor, largely African-American violence-plagued neighborhood that tends to make it into the mainstream media only for the bad stuff that goes on there.

I'm sure the increased police presence makes those who live here feel safer, particularly in the absence of electricity. But this is also a community where the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy has angered many young people. The Rockaway Youth Task Force has worked hard on the issue, organizing meetings among the community's youth and its cops, so each could learn about the other's experience. They say these efforts have helped to create understanding and develop a better working relationship with the police.

At the Ocean Village high rises, a complex of privately owned buildings along the Atlantic that were seriously deteriorating from neglect before the hurricane and are now in the process of being sold, residents still lack power, heat and the ability to flush their toilets.

One woman standing on the periphery of the complex's charmless plaza admitted to me that residents were defecating into garbage bags and throwing them down the trash compactor chute. When I asked her if anyone had contacted the building management about the possibility of getting some generators onto the property, the woman rolled her eyes and told me it was useless. There was a small generator powering a kind of canteen on the building's ground floor, but it was unclear who had procured it. The only service that the management was providing, this woman told me, was its security staff. They have been tight-lipped with information about when the power might come back, she said, but had helped some of the residents carry food and water up the building's darkened stairs, alongside the multitude of volunteers who came into the area to help.

About those volunteers: It struck me that many of them probably think that the neighborhood looks this way because of Hurricane Sandy. But the truth is that the condition of the built environment in this area, and the situation of its residents, is only marginally worse now than it usually is. It just took a hurricane for most people to even notice or care. I wondered what the locals were making of the new attention.

Many of the Ocean Village residents I spoke with are taking their situation in resigned stride. Already, they are too accustomed to waiting and not making demands, though it is clear many are angry and suffering, particularly the elderly and the sick.

Then there are the children who should be at their relocated schools, but instead are outside in the sun. One boy told me sheepishly that his school isn't starting until the following week, but I am pretty sure this isn't true. More likely his parents either don't know where the school is now located or are too overwhelmed to figure out how to get him there. Some schools have been moved to neighborhoods well over an hour away.

Another kid told me he had spent most of the daylight hours in his apartment reading. But my guess is he was absorbed in watching what might look to him like a freak show outside: the streams of mostly white volunteers parading through his darkened lobby with boxes of stuff to the chaotic Occupy Sandy "distribution center" in the complex's community center, where his neighbors are being herded into yet one more line, and where nobody seems to know what is going on.

In fact, most of the people I spoke with in Ocean Village said what they need most now is information. There is no centralized location where they can learn when their power might come back, what transportation is running, how they can get food stamps, or fill a prescription, or charge their phones.

Many people want to know if they have to pay their rent for the time when they haven't had electricity or heat. Or if there will be some kind of financial assistance for people who haven't been able to go to work. One elderly man told me his neighbor drove a livery cab for a living but his car had been destroyed in the storm, depriving him of his source of income. He had mounting bills to pay. Would there be any help for him? I wish I knew.

One enterprising soul had attempted to address this information blackout with a makeshift sign taped to the front door of a building. On it is listed a few locations where food and services can be found, as well as a reminder that the Boys + Girls Club on 36th Street & Beachtown Dr. and the Senior Center on Beach 19th would be open for voting.

In spite of their dire circumstances, Rockaway residents did get out to vote. Yet I haven't heard much talk about politics out here -- except from young members of the Rockaway Youth Task Force. Their mission is about youth empowerment through civic and political engagement to bring about long-term change. By nature, their work is political, and these are things that require organization and planning, commitment and struggle, things that can't be put in garbage bags and trucked in by volunteers.

UPDATE: I made several calls to RY Management, the company that manages the Ocean Village complex. I finally got someone on the phone and asked her what the building owner was doing to help residents, and whether there were plans to bring in generators. I was told that someone "from the office" would call me back. I am still waiting for that call.

Hella Winston is a senior fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University. She has written extensively about child sexual abuse coverups in some fervently Orthodox communities for the New York Jewish Week. The series won awards from the American Jewish Press Association and the Journalism Center on Children and Families.

More about the Institute's Ethics & Justice Investigative Journalism Fellowship here.