For anyone fortunate to come home to a familiar space, we can forget the compounding difficulty of homelessness. A home represents stability, and in the wake of the COVID 19 pandemic, homelessness was made even worse.
Mary Kay Orr, the Executive Director of Nazareth Housing, wanted to address the problem of homelessness in New York in a meaningful way. Nazareth Housing is a community-based nonprofit serving vulnerable families and individuals in crisis. For almost 40 years Nazareth has helped families to unlock their potential, build pathways out of poverty, and avoid homelessness — helped them realize, as Orr puts it, “a mosaic of what life can be.”
Orr came to the organization after 25 years working in financial services on Wall Street. Her work has illuminated the nuance between serving others and helping them, respecting their fundamental dignity and giving individuals the tools to advance their own lives. She has seen that homelessness has multiple root causes and that any gesture of compassion and volunteering contributes to making a meaningful difference.
Transcript: Mary Kay Orr
Chris Riback: Mary Kay, thanks for joining. I appreciate your time.
Mary Kay Orr: I am so happy to be here. Thanks for making the time, Chris.
Chris Riback: What is Nazareth Housing? One can’t help but notice the word “housing” in the name, which might seem straightforward or even narrowly defined at first glance, but I know it isn’t. So tell me about Nazareth.
Mary Kay Orr: Nazareth Housing is a small organization that does very big things. We were founded in the early 1980s in the Lower East Side of Manhattan as part of the urban homesteading movement. That was a period of time when landlords had abandoned buildings right and left, empty buildings, burnt down lots. And a group of community activists got together of which we were part to reclaim those buildings from the city and to homestead them, to create safe, secure, affordable housing for low-income households, and to give those households ownership in those houses through sweat equity. So those were our roots. I’m really proud of those roots.
From there, we evolved over time to create a range of programs designed to end and prevent homelessness, to keep people stably housed. We know that the roots of homelessness are many, and so we seek to really bring a set of multifaceted solutions to that problem to serve our community.
Chris Riback: Tell me about that problem and how you view it. How do you view housing instability or homelessness today?
Mary Kay Orr: They’re closely related. They are two different things. Homelessness simply put is when a person does not have a home. They either live in shelter or they live on the streets. Last night, according to the city census, there were 45,000 individuals living in shelters in New York City. Of those 45,000 individuals, 25,000 of them were individuals living in families with children. And that is really a hidden face of the crisis of homelessness.
Families enter homelessness for three primary reasons. The first and foremost is domestic violence. The second is job loss and simply the unaffordability of housing. And the third is overcrowding. Housing instability is, unfortunately, often one step away from homelessness. It is every day worrying about whether or not you’re going to have a secure, safe environment to raise your child and your family in, in the weeks or months ahead. It can be that you’re several months in arrears. It can be that you’re overcrowded, you’re doubled up, you’re living with family members, you’re living with friends, but at some point the welcome mat is going to be worn out and you’re going to have to move. You are living paycheck to paycheck. However, what we really should say is you’re not living paycheck to paycheck, you’re always one paycheck behind from paying bills.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: And when you lose that job or when your hours get cut, many essential workers, they work by the hour, they’re not always guaranteed 35 or 40 hours a week. And if one week your hours get cut, that’s a loss of income and it means you’re going to have trouble paying the rent. And then finally, the rent burden. Rent burden is a definition by HUD, which defines individuals and families who pay more than 30% of their household income for rent as being rent burdened. It means they’ll be challenged in paying for other essential goods, such as medical care, food, clothing, the basic necessities. that all leads to housing instability.
Chris Riback: Given that definition, given that range of factors and inputs and transitions and outside factors, much of which one might not have control and it can be very hard to prepare for. Give me an overview, if you would, of the areas that Nazareth Housing supports and addresses.
Mary Kay Orr: Thanks for that question. We look to take a holistic approach to this problem. At our heart, we are a human services organization. We serve people. And in doing that, we are seeking to serve them by ending and preventing homelessness. We know that the crisis of homelessness has many factors contributing to it. And we know that people’s lives are complicated. They’re beautiful and they’re messy. And so we need to bring a range of resources and supports that tackle this issue from multiple angles. So examples of that would be, we do provide affordable, low-income housing where no one in our buildings ever pays more than 30% of their household income on rent so that they won’t be rent burdened.
Chris Riback: Meaning, are you the landlord in those situations? Do you own-
Mary Kay Orr: We do, very small. We have three buildings, one in The Bronx, two in the East Village that the roots are, we rehabilitated them back in the ‘80s and early ‘90s as part of the homesteading movement. Two of those buildings, we rehabilitated in the homesteading movement. The third building we actually founded in 2006. It had been abandoned Catholic school for 50 years, empty building in the heart of the East Village.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Mary Kay Orr: And working with both New York City Housing Preservation and Development and with other funders, we renovated that building to provide 15 units of affordable housing for very low-income households. That building is fully occupied today. We’ve never had an eviction in that building and those families are thriving.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Mary Kay Orr: That’s one pillar of what we do.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: However, we bring a range of other programs and services. We have a very vibrant food pantry, both in The Bronx and in the East Village. And you might say, “Well, how does a food pantry fit in with ending and preventing homelessness?”
Chris Riback: Money is money.
Mary Kay Orr: Right. Concept is if you spend less money on food, you have more money for rent.
Chris Riback: Yep.
Mary Kay Orr: We provide programming in areas such as housing counseling, financial capability, other life skills that allow people to either find affordable housing, to help them prepare and apply for affordable housing lotteries, to help them develop the household budgeting skills so that it can set aside their income to make good choices about paying for rent, paying for other essential goods.
We run a VITA program, Volunteer Income Tax Assistance Program, which is a program that we run under the auspices of the IRS to provide free tax preparation services to families. And what does that do? That allows families to not only prepare their taxes for free and save tax preparation fees, but to also make sure that they’re getting all of the various tax credits that are designed to lift working families’ incomes.
Both the food pantry and the VITA program are essential gateway to our other services. When people come to our food pantry, they undoubtedly have a whole host of other needs that we can serve them with. So we do not serve people anonymously in any of our programs. We get to know them, we get to understand their needs. We get to understand their aspirations. And then we either can assist directly, enrolling families in eligible benefit programs, such as food stamps, such as certain housing voucher programs, or we can connect them with other organizations around job readiness that will help them as well, build pathways out of poverty.
Chris Riback: How do folks react to that? On the one hand, listening to you, I can understand why getting to know them deeply and personally matters. You just described the positive benefits that, that can bring. At the same time, I could see where folks might have a sense of privacy and want to not have to share everything. Perhaps one ends up in a situation like that with circumstances that they don’t necessarily want to discuss. How do you balance that?
Mary Kay Orr: You have to build trust, you have to earn trust. One of the things I didn’t say when I first started off, I said, we are a small organization that does big things, but we are a community based organization. We are deeply embedded in the community we serve and we’re trusted by the community. We have been living and working in these neighborhoods for several decades. We actually serve families on a multi-generational basis. We’ll have young people just starting out in jobs who will come to our tax program and say, “Well, my grandmother sent me to you.” We’ll have a young mother who is now started working and looking for affordable housing and she’ll be sent by a friend and a relative.
So when somebody walks through our doors, the first thing we want to do is acknowledge their dignity, to acknowledge their humanity, and to know that we see them as a whole person and we ask, how can we serve you? And that’s a distinction I’d like to here. We don’t help people, we serve people. And you may say to me, “Well, what’s the difference?”
Chris Riback: I can feel the difference. Yes, tell me.
Mary Kay Orr: The difference in my mind at least is too often, help is viewed as a handout.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: To your point, help is viewed as invasive, as prying, as judgmental. That’s not who we are. We are really here to serve in every way we can to help people. And there I said help, but to serve people, to build lives that are really filled with opportunity and promise. I think it’s forgotten sometimes that individuals living in low-income communities, wrestling with poverty, that they too are aspirational. They too have hopes and dreams, but they may not have been connected with resources and supports that allow them to build out those lives. And that’s what we seek to do.
Chris Riback: I’m nervous to ask this question because I fear I know the answer. What’s been the impact from the pandemic?
Mary Kay Orr: Well, as you would know, it’s been devastating across the board. If I look at housing instability, before the pandemic, 41% percent of households in New York City were rent burdened. That means 41% of households in New York City were already paying more than 30% of their household income on rent.
Chris Riback: Man.
Mary Kay Orr: And in low-income households, households below the poverty line, over 60% of those house were rent burdened. You look at the numbers now, there are over 200,000 cases, eviction cases pending in housing court. There is a great fear that there’ll be a tsunami of eviction cases now that the moratorium has been lifted. The program that the state launched, the Emergency Relief Assistance program, which was funded with federal stimulus dollars that was launched last June. $2.5 billion in that fund. They ran out of money before they could even complete the first one third of applications, which means two thirds of the households who applied for funding weren’t able to secure it. We knew in week three of the shutdown that the safety net that supports the families we serve have been completely shredded. Why did we know that? Well, our food pantry in the East Village used to serve 50 households a week before the pandemic. In week three of the shutdown, 200 families showed up. It went from 50 to 200.
Chris Riback: Yes, a four times increase, yes.
Mary Kay Orr: A four-time increase in three weeks. Half of those families had never been to our pantry before. And I think most of them had never been to a food pantry before. But if you’re an essential worker, you didn’t get to work remotely. You just lost a job. You weren’t able to earn income. And all of a sudden your housing situation, your food security situation became incredibly fragile. And city still has a lot of digging out to do. Yes, we’re coming back. Employment is picking up, but if you’re living paycheck to paycheck, or as I said earlier, one paycheck behind all the time and you’ve lost three, six, nine months of income, it is a very daunting task to dig out of that.
Chris Riback: Let me ask you about public policy. I know you are not in a public policy official position, you’re not a government official, but you are aware of what is going on. I mean, in listening to you, it is clear housing insecurity touches employment, health, mental health, education, safety, just a few. Can public policy be sufficiently coordinated to prevent or address this issue? Is this issue too complicated for public policy to solve?
Mary Kay Orr: Well, the first thing I’d say is simply because the problem is really complex doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tackle it, right?
Chris Riback: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Mary Kay Orr: This is a human problem. This is a societal problem. So I think we all have an obligation to step in and figure it out and keep working on it. Progress, not perfection perhaps, but we can make more progress than we’ve made today. I think it does require the best minds and skillsets across all three sectors, government, the private sector, and the nonprofit sector to really think about these issues from a multifaceted way, to your point, because there are a myriad of issues that give rise to housing instability, and all of those challenges have to be considered and addressed. So yes, it’s complicated, but I think there are actions, policy actions that can be taken that could make a substantive difference in this crisis. And I’ll give you a few.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: Let’s talk about employment, right? And I’ll put aside for a moment, just job readiness and skills training. That’s something we can talk later about in terms of how can business help? What is the role of business? But let’s talk about employment and the people who are at the greatest risk of homelessness, who experience housing instability day in and day out. They are essential workers, and most of them earn minimum wage, or they earn slightly more than minimum wage.
So minimum wage in New York City is $15 an hour. MIT recently published a study that stated that a living wage in New York City should be $22 an hour. So if you’re making $15 or even $18, which is what some of the big box stores are now offering, you’re going to be behind. A mom who makes $15 an hour working as a cashier at the local grocery store, at the local bodega and has two children let’s say, and she’s working full time at $15 an hour. Her income is going to be around $31,000. The rent, the fair market value for a one-bedroom apartment in New York City, according to HUD is $1,800. To be able to afford that, she would have to be spending 67% of her household income to have a one-bedroom.
Chris Riback: For a one bedroom, exactly. That’s what I’m thinking.
Mary Kay Orr: A one-bedroom for her and two children.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: And if you get to a two-bedroom, it’s simply, she couldn’t pay it at all. But 67% is not sustainable. So we have to really talk about a living wage and what that means. A living wage gives people opportunity to then really be focused on being aspirational. Because if you worry day in and day out about paying the rent and putting food on the table, it is really hard to look forward and to be aspirational about developing new skills, about expanding your employment opportunities. So that’s one area from a policy standpoint that I think we have to look very seriously at.
Affordable childcare is another, and this is something I know in New York City, the new administration wants to look at very seriously.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: Because if you don’t have affordable childcare and you have young children, it is very difficult to work full time. It’s just impossible. And if you’re working full time and you want to go back to school to enhance your skills, it’s even more difficult. So that is a solution that has to be brought to the table if we want to reduce poverty in the city, if we want to reduce housing instability.
The third area I talk about is housing vouchers themselves. We have a crisis of affordable housing in this city, and there is a lot of really great work being done to bring more affordable housing units onto the market. But most of those units are geared towards households making anywhere between 50% and 80% of the area median income. And the families we serve, many of them are not making 50% of the area median income. They’re making 30% or 40%. Because going back to my scenario of being a single mom, working in an essential job, you are going to be making 30%, 35% of the area median income.
There was a great policy paper put out in January by Robin Hood and the Center on Poverty and Social Policy at Columbia. They do really excellent work around these issues.
Chris Riback: Yes, they do. I’m familiar with some of their work. They do. They do excellent work.
Mary Kay Orr: Yes. And they examined a current program the city has, which is a very good program called CityFHEPS, which is designed to give families currently in shelter or who are at risk of eviction and have previously been in shelter, vouchers that will allow them to pay only 30% of their income on rent and their remaining part of the rent will be paid by the city voucher to a landlord. It brings a solution to the landlord, so that they can rent the apartment at an affordable rent. It brings a solution to the family because they are not going to be rent burdened.
The challenge with that voucher program is you have to either be in shelter or you have to have been in shelter and in the process of evicted. And additionally, you have to be on some form of public assistance. There are many households, especially given the impact of the pandemic, who’ve never been in shelter, who are at risk of eviction because of the income loss they had. Going forward, they can pay their rent, but they can’t do it now. So the policy paper put out jointly by Robin Hood and the Center for Social and Poverty Policy is recommending changes to that framework. Those are examples, very concrete, actionable things that we can do if we’re brave enough to do them.
Chris Riback: What a choice of words, bravery required. So that’s public policy. And you raised business and I want to ask you about the potential role for business in a moment. But first, you made the point of describing Nazareth Housing as a community based organization. So you’ve talked about it a bit, tangibly what you do, but if there is maybe this triangle of public policy, business, and then community based organizations, what’s the role for community based organizations?
Mary Kay Orr: Community based organizations get it done. I think that public policy solutions should be designed by collaboration by the private sector, government sector, and nonprofit sector. I, and this is personal to me, do not think that those solutions should be solely executed or implemented by big government. I think there’s an incredibly important role that community based organizations that are boots on the ground, know their community, know their needs, are trusted by the community, can implement more effectively. I think we can be more nimble.
To give you an example. I told you how week three of the pandemic and the shutdown, we knew that the safety net had just been shredded. We knew it because of the lines forming at our food pantry. We used to serve 50 households a week. All of a sudden, we were faced with serving 200 households a week. How do you do that? We just redeployed everybody. We looked at our team and said, “All right, this is what we have to do. This is where the need is right now and we are going to, you know, pull up our boots. We are going to get in the front line and everybody is going to be working at pantry.”
We commandeered space that we used for workshops. Well, obviously, we couldn’t run in-person workshops in a shutdown. We took the space and we put up shelving, we got additional refrigerators and we just started ordering a lot more food. We never paid cash for food before. We relied on various grants from nonprofit partners, such as the Food Bank or United Way, or from New York City government. And we realized that those grants, we had already spent them. We had to pay cash. And we said, we’re going to do that. And we went out to various partner foundations and made our case.
40% of the food pantries closed in New York City the first two months of the pandemic. We never shut our doors. We showed up to work every single week to meet the need. And we didn’t have to get permission to redeploy staff. We didn’t have to have a lot of meetings to think about how to do it. We just did it. That’s what I really love about the organization that I work at, Nazareth Housing, but I just really like about community based organizations in general. They have a can do spirit. They fiercely believe in the community in which they’re embedded. And it’s inspirational is what I would say.
So that’s the ethos. That’s kind of the DNA of our organization. We see the whole person when they come in the door and you asked the question about, how do you get people to reveal what their needs are? How do you build trust? And you do it one step at a time, one engagement at a time.
Chris Riback: Yes, yes.
Mary Kay Orr: There’s a woman who I have known now for six years and our entire team now has become her care team. She came into our program initially for domestic violence counseling. One of our other programs I hadn’t mentioned is that we are funded by a program through the city called DOVE, the domestic violence empowerment program. We provide safety planning to individuals, we provide counseling for new housing, we connect them to other resources and support. And in beginning to engage with her, I’ll call her Carmen, what we came to realize was she didn’t define herself initially as a domestic violence survivor. She hadn’t worked however in 15 years. She was forbidden to leave her house, she was forbidden to work. And then her husband effectively walked out and abandoned her. So she came in for help with rent. But we realized really early on, there were other things hear.
So we just kept welcoming her, talk to her. She’d come in hungry. We just happened to have food in the kitchen that we’d give her a meal. She didn’t want to be enrolled in pantry at first, because to your point, she saw that as a handout, she felt ashamed by needing that. So we just always had a box packed up when she came in to talk to us. She had come to the states in her early 20s, immigrated here, but she had stopped schooling at 12. She was taken out of school at 12 to care for her grandmother.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Mary Kay Orr: So she had a very limited education. We connected her with a local CBO in our neighborhood that does hands on individualized GED training, and she got her GED. Then we connected her with a program to be certified to be a home healthcare attendant. And she went to class and she became a home healthcare attendant. And then from there, we connected her with a program at New York Presbyterian Hospital that was hiring people reentering the workforce after long absences. And she passed the interviews with flying colors. And she’s been working there four years now. She has a union job.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Mary Kay Orr: She’s making mid-five figures.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Mary Kay Orr: And she now has enough Social Security credits. I think the point I also want to make here though, is we didn’t do that. Right? This is when I say earlier that our clients are aspirational. She had just lost all hope. She didn’t feel that she had a future. She really didn’t know where to turn. And with each of those kind of interactions and engagements, we opened the door a little bit more, but she had to make the decision to go to class and pass the test. She had to make the decision to show up for work as an HHA. And then she had to make the decision to study for and pass the interviews. All of which she did. So when I talk about service, that’s an example of what service to us is. And that’s how our holistic approach comes together.
So Carmen came in with one piece of a puzzle, I need help with this one thing. But in talking to her, we realized there were a whole lot of other pieces of the puzzle that if we helped her pick up, she could create a beautiful mosaic, that was really a mosaic of what life could be. We still see her. She comes in to say hi. She comes in to have her taxes prepared for free. She’s now investing money in her 401k at New York Presbyterian and wants to know, “Gee, should I buy something someday?” And if you had met her six years ago, you would’ve seen a person who just had no hope. And now, she sparkles. And it’s been a great privilege and honor to serve her and to see her build this life out the way she has.
Chris Riback: Mary Kay, I was going to ask, how do you know if you are succeeding? I feel like you just answered it.
Mary Kay Orr: That is the primary measure of success. If we can help one person transform their life and really make the life that they want. That’s our success. We do look to measure outcomes in different ways. We want to be thoughtful about the data.
Chris Riback: Of course.
Mary Kay Orr: We look at the data.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: So there are things we look at. I’ll give you two examples. One of them is looking at the number of people who come to us in the process of eviction, how many of them are able to avert eviction? And in the past five years, 98% of the people who come to us are able to avert eviction. That’s a very high success rate.
Chris Riback: Incredibly high.
Mary Kay Orr: Another would be in our emergency family shelter. The average length of stay in fiscal year ‘21 for a family in shelter, a family with children was 502 days. It’s almost two years. Our families stayed in shelter for 350 days. Longer than we would like, a lot less than the city average. And most importantly and the measure that I really track is when families transition to permanent housing, do they reenter the shelter system in the next year? I want families to really be on that pathway, to build that life out of poverty. We don’t want to see people moving to permanent housing and then boomeranging back. None of the families we have placed in the past year into permanent housing have boomerang back. But to your point, to be honest, I could tell you stories all day long of people that we have served and that’s really our measurement.
Chris Riback: Yes, that’s got to be,. I mean, the data matter, of course, and you …
Mary Kay Orr: Absolutely.
Chris Riback: … have to measure that data and you have to report it and you have to know that your efforts are creating results like that, but it comes down to the human lives. It comes down to the person and her life and her family and her children or his children.
Mary Kay Orr: It absolutely does. As I said before, we are human services organization. We are here to serve people. And if you can touch one life and know that, that person has had it transformed in a way that just blows open the doors for them in terms of opportunities and possibilities, it’s a great accomplishment.
Chris Riback: Mary Kay, at the same time, New York City is a business driven metropolis, as you know. What’s the role of business in a municipality’s homelessness challenge?
Mary Kay Orr: Great question. Not unexpected. The first is doing what you’re doing, right? Ask questions, learn, get engaged. I think there are a number of very concrete things, again, that business can do. Let’s talk about the area of education and training because that’s a natural for business. Business has jobs. Business is really interested in a well-developed, well-educated workforce. So these are areas where I think the private sector has an incredibly important role to play.
So looking at training programs that create real pathways for work where they partner with, and I would start with looking at schools. I think first of all, there is an insufficiently explored opportunity for business to partner with the community college network in New York City, with the CUNY system. I think there are times when we all have our own biases and we look for pedigrees, educational pedigrees, and we look for the same old set of elite selective schools to recruit from.
If you look at the CUNY system, it is brimming with talent. It is filled with first generation students, students who they will be the first in their family to go to college. It is filled with immigrants. It is filled with formerly incarcerated individuals who want to go back into the workplace. And creating programs that link with the community colleges, as well as with the CUNY universities, such as Baruch or such as Hunter. I think there’s a pool of talent there that is hungry to learn, that is committed to work, that could then bring sustainable change to the communities in which they live. But to do that, those partnerships, there have to be really mentoring, there has to be training, and there have to be some wraparound services.
So many of, for instance, I look at the CUNY students and I know a number of them, they’re already working. They’re working any essential jobs, but the reason they’re working and going to school part-time is they have to pay the rent, they have to contribute to the family’s income. They are maybe a working mom or a working father. So this gets back to creating what I would call wraparound supports, where perhaps there are stipends given for childcare, perhaps there’s onsite childcare, there’s support given for transportation. That’s one area.
The city has a program called SYEP the Summer Youth Employment Program. This year, the city’s looking to create 100,000 of those jobs. Those are for youth, age from 16 to 24, to develop again, work skills, work knowledge. Create jobs for that program, partner with the nonprofits. Unfortunately, we’re not one of them, but there’s some great nonprofits that run these programs for the city, connect. That’s one area.
Another area is many corporations in the private sector have their own philanthropic funding. Consider giving GOS, General Operating Support. Too often, the funding we get is so narrowly targeted, it constrains us. It doesn’t always allow us to be nimble, or it doesn’t allow us to invest in capacity building. An example would be, we’ve grown and we realized our current platform, QuickBooks, is woefully insufficient to sustain our continued growth plans. So we’re bringing on a really sophisticated financial management system. We’re really excited about that. We couldn’t find a grant for it. We tried. I have a wonderful board. My board said, “Just spend the money. We will raise it in another way.” And so we’re bringing this system on and we’re fundraising privately.
And then I’d say join boards. I know some folks may roll their eyes at that, join a board. Smaller nonprofits, community based organizations really need that talent. I have an amazing board. I have a group of board members that are deeply invested in our work. All of whom could be on much more prestigious boards. They could go to a cocktail party, they could go to event and name drop. You’re not going to name drop, let’s be honest, Nazareth Housing, but what you will do if you’re on a board of a community based organization like Nazareth Housing is you’re going to make a difference. You’re going to bring your talent, not just your treasure. You’re going to bring your talent and your skills and your network to help solve problems, to help us grow.
I rely on my board for expert HR advice. I rely on it for legal advice. I rely on it for program evaluation. All of those are critical needs that we and smaller nonprofits have. We don’t have the funds to go pay for consultants, to engage that type of talent. So I think there’s a real need. And if folks want to make a difference, that’s a very meaningful way to do it.
Chris Riback: Tell me about you. How did you or arrive at Nazareth Housing? What drew you to this particular social challenge?
Mary Kay Orr: I came to Nazareth Housing not by design. I had worked for almost 20 years in financial services in Wall Street. I loved it. I had a great ride. It was wonderful. And then I decided that I wanted to do something different. I really wanted to begin to give back to my community more directly. So I decided to pivot and transition. I was very interested in the field of economic justice, the areas of asset building, financial literacy, financial capability. I think those are skills that if you want to build a vibrant life in our society, you need to have them. And they’re not taught in our high schools. I think it’s assumed that you’ll learn it at home. If you grow up in a family in poverty or in a low-income household, those aren’t skills or resources that are going to be readily made available to you. So I was very interested in that field.
Chris Riback: Yes.
Mary Kay Orr: One of the programs I got involved in was this VITA program that I mentioned before. The IRS is surprisingly a very progressive organization. It does not believe that households which earn less than $60,000 a year should pay to have their taxes prepared, and it very much wants low-income households to get the full access to the various tax credits that are designed to lift working families’ income. So what the IRS does is it partners with nonprofits across the country to create a network of organizations that will be certified by the IRS to prepare these taxes for free. So I got quite involved in that program. It’s just a really life-changing program. The people you meet, whose taxes you’re preparing, think you’re a god or goddess when you’re actually doing something that’s pretty straightforward. And you’re giving back in a huge way. The year before the pandemic, Nazareth, for example, served 1,200 households in this program and returned 1.8 million to the community.
Chris Riback: Wow.
Mary Kay Orr: That’s a lot of funding to go back in the community. But going back to your question. So I came as a volunteer to Nazareth and I was just in the VITA program and I looked around and said, “This is a really cool organization.” I had never been in a CBO before. I come from a large corporate environment and to be honest, I think I had a bit of a hubris of the private sector is the smartest sector and it’s the sector that’s the most entrepreneurial and the sector that’s most innovative. And I saw that wasn’t really true. That here was this organization being very entrepreneurial, being very nimble and that the people it was serving were so excited about the support they were receiving and the doors that was opening and grateful. It was just very humbling.
So I was working there as a volunteer, running this VITA program, serving as a financial coach, one on one, helping people remediate debt, fix their credit, build their budgets. And then the board, I was on the board too, and the board said, “Well, since you’re doing all this, can you lead the organization?” So that’s how I got here.
Chris Riback: You know that no good deed goes unpunished, Mary Kay.
Mary Kay Orr: No good deed goes unpunished, and that’s kind of what happened. But to be serious, it’s been a real honor and it’s really a privilege to be serving here and to be representing this community. It’s been the honor of a lifetime actually.
Chris Riback: That appears evident. I can hear that in the tone of your voice as you tell the story. For anyone listening to this who wants to help be a part of the solution, what do you recommend? Of course, let’s be very, very clear, anyone can go to NazarethHousingNYC.org. I’m the one saying that, not you, so you don’t have to worry that you’re pitching something, you’re not. But anyone is welcome to go there to NazarethHousingNYC.org, and read about your various offerings. But what would you recommend for anyone who wants to help make impact in their own communities, nationwide perhaps, wherever they are?
Mary Kay Orr: I think you follow your passion and you follow your heart. I’ve always been passionate around supporting organizations that are geared towards combating poverty. That’s always been very important to me. I have lived in New York City for 40 years now. I’ve lived in Brooklyn for 35 years. I’ve seen a community transformed and changed, and I want to be part of that change. So first, find your passion. It might be human services, it might be climate change, it might be the arts. And that’s the first thing I’d say.
The second thing I would say is don’t think that any contribution is too small, step forward and just offer it. Nonprofits need volunteers. And if you can’t make a committed engagement, then offer for one-time solutions. I look at New York Cares is a platform in New York City, for instance, that matches volunteers with nonprofits. It’s a great matchmaking in service. Both of my children in high school and in college were members of New York Care. So if they came back during break and they wanted to pitch in on particular day of service, they could go on the platform and find an assignment, a match that worked for them, that they were drawn to. So offer to help. There are board matching services as well nationwide, as well as citywide to connect. But I would say, try to do it locally, because you can really make a difference and you’ll see the difference. Just sign up and step up. It’s not that hard once you get started.
Chris Riback: Yes. Just get started. Exactly. It is excellent advice. And you have painted a picture and Carmen, whom you mentioned earlier remains in my mind and this I guess is at its heart, it feels like what Nazareth Housing can do is help individuals realize a mosaic of what life can be. What a wonderful line that was. Mary Kay, thank you. Thank you for your time, but thank you for what you and the organization does for folks, does with folks every day. Thank you.
Mary Kay Orr: Thank you, Chris. It’s been a pleasure talking with you.