NORWALK, Conn. — Efforts to replace Norwalk Economic Opportunity Now (NEON) continue, as some decry the use of the building formerly occupied by the defunct anti-poverty agency.
“We are not going to be the CAP (Community Action Program) agency,” Norwalk Housing Authority Executive Director Curtis Law said Thursday.
In September, 2015, the Connecticut Department of Social Services (DSS) named NHA as its choice to be the new Norwalk area CAP agency, a replacement for the bankrupt NEON. That was 14 months ago, and there is still no CAP agency.
Law said negotiations ended unsuccessfully about two months ago.
“There was a question about the funding that we had in one of our accounts, whether or not we can commit that to the CAP agency, which we cannot,” Law said.
Sources said early last year that NHA had included a Norwalk Housing Foundation account on its application to be a CAP agency, as an asset. Negotiations with DSS were strained as NHA did not want to spend the money for the CAP agency, the source said.
NancyOnNorwalk happened to sit in on 10 minutes of a Foundation meeting in January, before being asked to leave by NHA Attorney Donna Lattarulo.
The Foundation meeting is private, she said, although the NHA Board meeting had transitioned seamlessly into a Foundation meeting.
The discussion concerned $846,759 that was in a Foundation account due to a decision by the NHA Board in 2002.
That was when the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) had changed the rules for some of its funding, sources said, and the NHA discussion touched on that topic.
“HUD decided they were going to recapture those funds and only allow them to be used for specific program in which they were earned,” an official said at the January discussion. “So, we moved them. Up to that point you could use those funds for any housing purpose. Now they are directed to the specific program in which they were earned.”
Law on Thursday said that HUD account was the one he was referring to when he said, “There was a question about the funding that we had in one of our accounts.”
Using the money for a CAP agency would have been a “no-no,” he said.
So how is Norwalk doing without a CAP agency?
“My understanding is that ABCD will continue to provide heating assistance as they have in the past,” State Senate Majority Leader Bob Duff (D-25) said in an email, referring to Action for Bridgeport Community Development. “I don’t believe the Housing Authority is interested any longer in being the designated CAP agency. Therefore, discussions continue with various stakeholders.”
“The department’s negotiations with the Norwalk Housing Foundation to reach the contracting stage turned out to be unsuccessful,” DSS spokesman David Dearborn said in a Thursday email. “Currently, we are in discussions with two established community action agencies — Action for Bridgeport Community Development and the Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut — toward establishing services in the greater Norwalk area; i.e., becoming the community action agency for portions of the area formerly served by NEON.”
The Community Action Agency of Western Connecticut (CAAWC) was one of three agencies that responded to DSS’s March 2015 Request for Qualifications for a new CAP agency. NHA and the Norwalk Kiwanis were the other two; the contract being advertised was expected to run from May 25, 2015, to Sept. 30, 2016.
On Monday, Ernie Dumas, president of the recently formed South Norwalk Citizens for Justice, decried the South Norwalk Community Center’s dominance in 98 South Main St., a city-owned building deeded to both NEON and SoNoCC and now embroiled in NEON’s bankruptcy proceedings.
SoNoCC should not have been allowed to use the second floor when NEON went bankrupt, Dumas said.
Common Council member Travis Simms (D-District B) said SoNoCC is using more than 50 percent of the building. Council member Faye Bowman (D-District B) said the city should have a manager deciding who uses the community room in the building, which SoNoCC has always used as its own.
“We have had conversations with the South Norwalk Community Center. The lawyers are involved. Everything is being worked out but right now nothing is occurring there that is against what the bankruptcy court is allowed,” Mayor Harry Rilling said.
Although everyone always assumed that SoNoCC “owned” the first floor and NEON “owned” the second floor, in reality there is no legal justification for that belief, Rilling said.
SoNoCC Chief Operating Officer Katherine Villanueva on Thursday agreed with Rilling’s assessment of the deed and called Dumas, Simms and Bowman “highly misinformed.”
“When we get a co-owner it definitely won’t be that way,” Villanueva said. “They just don’t know their facts. They’re very opinionated and they just say their opinions and they don’t base it on concrete facts, which they should do.”
Rilling, on Monday, said, “My Corporation Counsel has worked out a deal with the bankruptcy court to accept a certain amount of money, which I can’t go into the amount, in order to have that (building) released to the city. Then we are trying to work with others who are interested in occupying that part of the building at some point in time but we are trying to figure out how the relationship is going to be. But they would only be able to take over a 50 percent ownership and they would share the building with the South Norwalk Community Center.”
Rilling did not answer a Tuesday email asking for details.
Villanueva said she knew who the city is negotiating with but would not name the entity.
South Norwalk Community Center board Chairman Warren Peña said he also knew.
“There is nothing finalized,” Peña said. “It’s a collaborative effort between the third party, the city and the community center. However, at the moment we are not anywhere near where we would like to be. So we just want to keep that, at least for now, private so we can let the negotiations continue without any outside parties or influence to the negotiations.”
He also agreed with Rilling’s characterization of the building, with NEON and SoNoCC as equal partners but “really no first floor/second floor situation in terms of ownership, it’s just from an operational perspective.”
NEON’s loss is keenly felt, Dumas said Thursday.
“We don’t have, in that building, community services,” Dumas said.
Americares and ABCD are there but really not much else, he said, going on to acknowledge that Christian Community Action (CCA) had been in the building before being ousted by NEON, moving down the street and then being absorbed by Person2Person.
There had been a program to help people who had been incarcerated, and a summer camp for kids, he said.
“All of that stuff is gone,” Dumas said. “… It brings life to the community. There’s no life there. The children have nowhere to go, the seniors have nowhere to go for information.”
“NEON was a $15 million a year budget CAP agency with multiple, multiple programs,” Peña said. “The Community Center literally had operated with one program that was taken away at the time of NEON’s demise. So, I would probably agree with him that there is not as many people coming into the building as there used to be, because you have an entity with a $200,000 a year budget versus an entity with a $15 million a year budget.”
NEON had 200 employees and SoNoCC basically has two, he said.
“Of course, you are going to have a different look and feel perhaps, and of course the level of services that we provide of course is nothing near what a $15 million a year entity would provide. Clearly. However, when NEON went under a lot of people continued to show up to the center for case management, so we continued to provide that service on a pro bono basis,” Peña said.
The South Norwalk Community Center is home to a Norwalk Public Schools after-school program for “District 99” children, area kids who don’t have a neighborhood school and are bused to other places.
Villanueva said she took over as the center’s chief operating officer in January.
She brought in programs, she said, listing English as a Second Language classes, a fitness program for kids on Saturday’s last summer, Alcoholics Anonymous, Al Anon, and collaboration with NPS. There’s an employee training program funded by Norwalk, with six to 10 participants in a three-week course, and church groups using the facility on weekends; in January, a new Girl Scout troop will be based in the center, she said.
NPS Communications Director Brenda Wilcox-Williams said there is a program at the center, the Norwalk Alternative Opportunity Program, for teenagers who have been expelled from high school. She didn’t have details readily available for how many students are involved.
There’s “exciting stuff” coming, Villanueva said.
“We just need the support of the community to make it work and no negativity,” she said.
Asked about the apparent racial divide, she said, “It’s open to all.”
“There is a history to the building but I am not from Norwalk, so I don’t have any of that,” she said. “As soon as I came in in January, for me at least, it’s getting everyone united. I hosted a fundraising festival here for the summer stock camp. I worked with Martha Dumas. I want the black community to come in and work with us. This is a community thing, this is not a Latino, this is not an African American-black thing, this is not a white community center. It’s a community center for the community and everyone that is here needs to come together and make this community work. Why wouldn’t the African Americans, the Latinos and the whites want this center to flourish?”
She continued, “Everyone should want millions of programs here. If someone comes to me with an opportunity or an idea it wouldn’t be shut down regardless of their race or color. I don’t give a damn what they are. I have worked with plenty of people that want to do a program. Fine. You have the resources, we have the space, let’s get it done.”
“I think having a CAP agency is good for the community and I think it’s helpful to have one, however, I think at the moment that there are some voids that have been filled, by ABCD for example, providing the energy assistance,” Peña said. “… It would be interesting to understand what a new CAP agency would bring to the table that perhaps others aren’t doing because you don’t want to have a repeat of services. You want to fill a void or a need that doesn’t exist out there, and be able to provide those services to the community.”
In a Thursday evening email, Peña responded further to Dumas’ comments:
“I beg to differ, there is plenty of life at the Community Center so perhaps Ernie is focused on the past, which blinds him to the present reality of all the wonderful activity that goes on at the Center.
“A CAP agency brings a whole lot of issues and scrutiny that frankly do not belong in the building moving forward. It is time to move on and re-brand so that we can attract more quality, respectable, viable partners that will compliment our programs. Anything less than that is a disservice to the community. It has taken a tremendous amount of work to instill trust back into the people we serve, calm the storm, and bad taste the bankrupt entity left behind.
“We serve a ton of seniors on a daily basis. If I remember correctly, we also have a bunch of Senior Centers in our City for them to go to for information. Frankly, we must be living in two different cities, or perhaps Mr. Dumas is misinformed about what is going on in his backyard. Additionally, there is a trend of ‘fake news’ that is going on so perhaps he jumped on that band wagon. I’m not sure. The summer camp has been there for the past three years operating in our newly constructed classrooms. The camp that used to be run by the Center at Columbus still exists, however it is being run by the Carver. There are two camps touching more than 100 families going on not even a 1/4 mile down the road from each other in the summer.
“Everything Mr. Dumas is referring too is blatantly false, and/ or an attempt to mislead the public.
“There is life, children are there for after school and summer programs, seniors are being served, the community is not missing any of these things. In fact, the quality of these programs are top notch in collaboration with high caliber local and national organizations. It is just being run by the South Norwalk Community Center, not a bankrupt entity which might be Mr. Dumas’ issue. SoNoCC is providing all of that, including case management on a pro-bono basis everyday. My COO just outlined all the great things going on at the Center, so to claim ‘there is nothing there’ is just preposterous.
“We struggle like another other non-profit and were left with a plethora of unique issues when our co-owner went bankrupt. Nevertheless, we have done our best to revive and maintain so that ‘community leaders’ like Mr. Dumas can have his events at the Center on a pro-bono basis, only for him to turnaround and lie about what and who SoNoCC is.”