The Safety Net

The Safety Net

“No matter the severity of the crisis, positives can always be found.” - Michael Collins
Published: May 14, 2021 | Updated: September 30th, 2022 at 4:24 pm

COVID in the Community series: The Safety Net
Michael Collins, commissioner of the Syracuse Department of Neighborhood and Business Development.

The pandemic has left no stone untouched: people have lost their lives, their homes, even their loved ones.

Everyone has had a different pandemic experience. I had a positive experience: I had the privilege of helping those in need.

As commissioner of the Department of Neighborhood and Business Development, my role covers a range of duties and people who needed my help. I assumed my position on March 2, 2020, in the beginning stages of the pandemic. I had no preconceived notions or set expectations about this job. I came in at a time where the entire department had to reconfigure how we were going to fix the issues that needed to be addressed while keeping our staff and residents safe.

When the weather was nice, we went out into the neighborhoods — socially distanced, of course. We listened to what the people needed and wanted, and we went to work. We called these ‘power walks,’ and from them, the team and I brainstormed ideas on how to keep neighborhoods safe and solid places to live, even in a global pandemic.

One of these problems dealt with a perceived homelessness population. People had been calling and reporting a large population of “homeless” people. However, we found out that these people weren’t homeless. In fact, these people had been deeply affected by an inability to pay rent, addiction, and mental health crises and were now on the street. The resources that were once plentiful for them were now limited.

It was our duty to find how to help these people. These people were on the streets and at risk, and in another life, that easily could’ve been any of us.

The department and I worked to bring these people the help they needed. Liberty Resources is currently doing mental health outreach in the streets, as well as St. Joe’s psychiatric emergency room. People are getting the support they so desperately need.

No matter the severity of the crisis, positives can always be found. My colleagues and I have found innovative solutions to problems we’ve yet to face up until this year.

The willingness and flexibility of the staff in the department reminded me of why I chose to work here. I didn’t have a pandemic experience lined with tragedy. Instead, I was in the position to help the city and its people bounce back from a devastating event.

COVID in the Community

COVID in the Community

This as-told-to interview is part of COVID in the Community, a series created by students in the Reporting classes at the Newhouse School in Spring 2021. COVID in the Community documents the experiences of Syracuse area residents living through this extraordinary time.