Pulling up to YAI’s Riverdale residence on a warm day in September, Congressman Jamaal Bowman wondered if he was in the right place. “I just see some beautiful houses. Am I at the wrong address?” Bowman visited the 261st Street home to learn more about services for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities (I/DD). The first-term Congressman spent more than an hour in the 10-person residence, meeting with staff, greeting residents, and learning about YAI’s model of person-centered support.
His timing was fortuitous. As the House of Representatives considers the $3.5 trillion federal reconciliation bill, a significant investment in I/DD services could include as much as $400 billion for human service providers. If the bill passes, funding may be used to raise reimbursement rates and, in turn, raise wages. The first-term Congressman knew it was time to hear from constituents working on the front line. According to a survey conducted by New York Disability Advocates in 2021, 25% of I/DD provider positions are vacant. More than 90% of agencies show a decrease in job applicants and nearly 40% report being unable to open programs due to staff shortages. Meanwhile, direct support professional (DSP) wages have remained flat for years. Cuts to the New York State Office of People With Developmental Disabilities (OPWDD) and through New York State Medicaid mean that providers have to further tighten their belts after an already difficult budget year due to COVID.
In Riverdale, Bowman was welcomed by Yvonne Patrick, Bronx Regional Director; Gaby Mesones, Residential Director; and Elsa Dickson, Health Care Specialist. Dickson, who has been a DSP for 20 years, has worked at the Riverdale program for most of her tenure. As a Health Care Specialist, she works closely with Riverdale’s nurse and helps dispense medication and schedule appointments. She used her time with Congressman Bowman to describe what motivates her and alert him to the growing need for resources.
“I care very deeply about the people we support…They need us, and my first duty is to them. But we [DSPs] need help, and we are begging the federal government to invest in us and help increase our salaries,” said Dickson.
Like many DSPs, Dickson is committed to her work but struggles to make ends meet due to low wages and a workforce crisis that tests limits.
Congressman Bowman has a personal stake in positions like Dickson’s; his sister is a home care worker so he’s seen up close how difficult direct care work is. While he was already signed onto the specific piece of legislation supporting the $400 billion bill, his visit to YAI’s Riverdale program gave him a new sense of urgency.
“Speaking to the workers, understanding their struggles, seeing the impact on the people they support – it’s a lot,” he said. “It helps contextualize what we’re fighting for and why. I’m going to keep fighting and doing everything I can to make sure we’re investing the funding that providers, and people with disabilities, deserve.”
Dickson said the opportunity to speak one on one with a Congressman made her feel appreciated, seen, and proud. “I am a shy person, but I felt I needed to speak for myself and many others out there,” she said. "I am so glad the Congressman got to hear from me directly, and I encourage other DSPs to raise their voices, so politicians listen to us and make the changes we demand.”