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More Risk But Less Outreach In New York's Densely Packed Public Housing


We've been reaching out to people from all walks of life to hear how this pandemic affects their lives. Let's hear now from Mike Kamber.

MIKE KAMBER: You know, I always say we're in one of the poorest communities in America, and we're five subway stops from the richest communities in America. So we need a level playing field, you know, when it comes to protecting yourself, especially in a public health crisis like this. It shouldn't be if you're poor, you're going to die, and if you're wealthy, you're going to live.

SIMON: Mike Kamber's a former photojournalist, now executive director of the Bronx Documentary Center. He teaches documentary skills to children in the South Bronx, where many families are poor. The pandemic has forced him to stop in-person classes, but Mike is now going to his students' homes. Many of them live in New York City public housing - or NYCHA, as New Yorkers call it. He sets up free laptops and Internet, so the students can learn online.

KAMBER: I've been working in one particular housing project. It's 10,000 people in three square blocks, thousands of people packed together in relatively small spaces. One of the main things is a lot of the elevators don't work. With COVID-19, with the current outbreak, it's a disaster because everybody's packing together into one elevator. There are huge problems with lead paint. There are leaks everywhere. You know, my goddaughters live in public housing, so their apartment has toxic mold. I mean, the bathroom, the whole ceiling is full of black mold. People have asthma. They already have respiratory problems, so there are so many factors that make COVID-19 even more lethal in public housing.

The projects in particular was almost like an information blackout area. I went into lobbies, you know? I kind of had this fantasy in my mind, like, well, ideally, you'd want to have hand sanitizer. And you'd want to have, you know, alcohol wipes. And you'd want to have big posters warning people. And you walk into the lobbies, and they're just bare. There's nothing there. There's no information at all. You know, I personally believe that NYCHA should have done a massive public information campaign. There should've been, you know, large posters and employees in every lobby. And that should've been weeks ago.

But I know that NYCHA just made hundreds of thousands of robocalls to people. But, you know, the people that I know in NYCHA - many of them - their phone number changes, you know, every year, sometimes, twice a year. They can't pay a bill. They lose the phone number. They get a different phone number. I do want to say in all fairness to NYCHA, I'm sure the people in the admin - you know, administration downtown are doing what they can. But they're running a system that's billions of dollars in debt and in terrible condition. And they obviously are really, really under-resourced. This week, it's just exploded, you know? There's - the hospitals are full. The ambulances are passing - every few minutes, an ambulance goes by our front door, you know? I think what's happening is a lot of people are taking matters into their own hands and really stepping up and trying to keep the community safe.

The Bronx Documentary Center is printing out information, posters and flyers, and we're taking them out. And we've posted hundreds of them around the neighborhood. I think the thing that's been impressive is going into the housing projects here in my neighborhood and seeing tenant leaders distributing food to tenants, especially the elderly, seeing the cleaning staff, like, take their own initiative and kind of really go the extra mile on their own to keep people safe. And I feel like there's a real community outpouring of care. And that's really moving to see.

SIMON: That's Mike Kamber of the Bronx Documentary Center. We called Greg Russ, who's chairman of the New York City Public Housing Authority, and asked him about what Mike Kamber said - that there's a lack of coronavirus information in New York City's public housing. Mr. Russ told us that NYCHA has put out 1.3 million communications about coronavirus since the start of March. He said they've used all the tools they have - phone calls, social media posts and safety posters to try to get word out to nearly 400,000 public housing residents across the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.