Just three years out of college in the 1980s, Omogo Wheeler was stationed at her Bronx ACS workplace when men in full “spacesuit”-style protective clothing walked through her office, clearing asbestos from behind plastic tents. Unsatisfied with how her union reps were handling the matter, she directly called the then-president of SSEU Local 371, Charles Ensley. As a result of her call, Ensley came down, the entire building with more than 500 workers was closed off and disposal was done properly.
‘We Got a Fireball’ “I had a bunch of people who were like, we have this fireball here, let’s push her to the front,” she recalled. Wheeler had soon won a delegate election and before long, she was tapped by Ensley to work for the union. Wheeler worked as a Grievance Rep, and under the mentorship of more seasoned workers, she soon came to know the power of a granular understanding of the contracts. “Nine times out of 10, [management] doesn’t know what they wrote in there,” she said. “You use what they wrote against them. Knowing the contract was invigorating for me. Even today I can tell you chapter and verse, where the information is. The practices, the processes.” Then Wheeler faced a setback: she was let go from her union job by then-President Ensley. True to the Game
“So I went back to location and there were still injustices going on,” she said. She went right back to being a Delegate, Vice Chapter Chair, and Executive Board Member—whatever the union needed. Why didn’t Wheeler sour on the union when she was let go? “Because it wasn’t about [Ensley],” she said. “It was about this. I was true to the game. And I remain true to the game.” Though retired, Wheeler is working in the Benefits Office part-time, explaining benefits to members. She is perhaps most proud of the delegation she taught. Nineteen Delegates, the largest group yet, attended Training this year and she mentored every one of them. Together, they cover well over 300 members. “Anything I can do to keep this going—this, that is constantly under attack—I will do. I’m down for the cause,” said Wheeler.
In 2018, Tiffany Touré noticed a stark change at the Fort Greene, Brooklyn shelter where she works. The facility on Auburn Place was previously a family shelter, and it was converted into an assessment center, where clients with the most severe mental illness and substance abuse problems come through. Suddenly, she and her fellow Caseworkers saw an influx of clients overdosing on opioids.A Champion for Health
Touré and another colleague were trained to use NARCAN nasal spray kits, which can reverse a narcotic overdose. The kits administer Naloxone, a drug that can temporarily block the effects of opioids (and spark withdrawal symptoms). They are used in emergencies until a patient can get to a hospital and see a health provider.
Touré is a “champion trainer,” tasked with teaching coworkers and even residents how to use the drug. “You just open it from the pack, like a nasal spray, push the lever up and that’s it,” Touré explained. “If they’re unconscious, you have to put them in a recovery position in case they wake up and they vomit.” (The withdrawal symptoms that arise after blocking opioid effects so rapidly can make patients sick.) When the building was a family shelter, Touré said some of the same families often stayed for years. People knew each other, and could often predict who would try to smuggle in drugs. The relationships that were built there could be a helpful deterrent for those who would try to sneak in substances.
Since she works the day shift, Touré doesn’t see as much alcohol or drug use as her evening counterparts. But the change was still apparent. “I started noticing that we had a lot more people coming in under the influence,” she said. “They‘re not responsive; they’re slurring. Caseworkers can review the incident logs and might see that a resident has overdosed in the past. They will call 911 right away if a resident shows signs of use.
New Drugs, New Hardships
Today, the heroin market has been flooded with—and often largely replaced by—a cheaper and harder-hitting drug called Fentanyl, which can be 50 times as strong. It has raised the chance of overdose dramatically. The Department of Homeless Services Police at the shelter have so far been most likely to use the NARCAN, when it is needed. The drug is often administered several times over a period of minutes to help avoid the worst of the dangerous withdrawal symptoms that can hit patients. Touré observed that with Fentanyl patients, an especially high number of sprays were often used. Touré and her colleagues refer residents to services based on their needs, including mental health services and public assistance. They carefully document each case, and help clients create a plan for leaving the shelter and transfering to permanent housing. For some with physical disabilities or severe mental health issues, they may be lucky enough to receive supportive housing, which enables them to continue living independently and receiving social services. Touré is happy to be working at a shelter, though the job has its hardships.
“I think the most difficult thing is seeing people in despair like that,” she said. “You like to see people who come in there and they overcome everything. They get their place...they got back on their feet.” She has had a few clients who were long-term shelter residents who got out and managed to stay out. “They were determined...they said, ‘I want my own place; I want to get my life together.’” There are other sad cases; children who grew up in shelters and, now that they’ve become adults, still see them as home. Some clients get caught up in violence outside the shelter, often because they had problems after buying drugs from the nearby housing project. Caseworkers can fall into the role of giving life-saving advice (’It would be a good idea to pay the violent man the money you owe him.’) Sometimes, the clients themselves have convictions for committing serious acts of sexual violence. These difficult parts of the job often leave Touré seeking at home the peace and quiet that’s lacking in the shelter. Still, she persists -- because she cares. “All you can do is try to make things better for the people who need the most help,” she said--which might as well be the official social workers’ creed.
“I’m a victim and I never knew it.”
Enid Ocasio has heard this comment many times. As the woman in charge of conducting outreach and training on domestic violence in the city’s 77 precincts and nine public-housing Police Service Areas, she finds herself frequently introducing New Yorkers to the concept of emotional abuse. Some don’t see themselves as victims because they’ve never been hit, shoved or kicked. It’s one of the many misconceptions trainers like Ocasio work to eliminate.
Ocasio makes sure her listeners know where, how and what to report domestic abuse. She also serves as a liaison with police when victims want to know what’s happened to their case. The work brings Ocasio all over the city. She presents at Family Justice Centers, which all New Yorkers can visit to get assistance for any domestic or gender-based violence, including sexual violence, human trafficking, stalking, and intimate partner violence. She also presents at community centers, senior centers, and other gathering places.
Dismissing emotional abuse is common among victims. “Maybe it was the norm that they grew up around,” she said. “So they don’t identify it as being a crime.” The job has given her insight into the psychology of abuse survivors: some admit to isolating themselves as a form of protection. She also reminds survivors that therapy isn’t something to be ashamed of. It can transform lives.
On the job, Ocasio deals with people in many different organizations, including detective and special victims’ squads, nonprofit service providers, and Assistant District Attorneys. “My passion is law,” Ocasio said. “My aspirations were to become a lawyer. But there’s this thing called life that just came crashing through.”
She has worked for the NYPD for 26 years, beginning as a Police Administrative Aide in the complaint room. There, she helped triage cases and lent a friendly and trained ear while determining the next steps. One of the most difficult parts of her current job is knowing that she can’t always please survivors - some would like to deliver their complaints directly to her because she’s easy to talk to, but it’s no longer her job. Ocasio worked her way up, moving to the Legal Bureau in the documents production unit. There, she dealt with Freedom of Information Law requests before obtaining her master’s in public administration and becoming an Equal Employment Opportunity Lead Trainer for 13 years. Her current title is Community Coordinator in the Chief of Department’s Office’s Domestic Violence Unit. On top of her current work, she is now newly in charge of the budget in her unit.
The job can be taxing emotionally. She sometimes works with immigrants who may not know the laws here or how to navigate them, which can make abuse even more detrimental. She sees heartbreaking situations: some aggressors are known to retaliate in devastating ways, such as filing false charges to get a survivor’s children taken away. Ocasio gets through it all with the knowledge that she is helping. “I find gratification in it,” she said. “Just being able to help somebody. Being able to give somebody a sense of security and peace, or a sense of direction. Sometimes they just need a sense of direction. So I feel like I’m being helpful.”
At the Bronx District Attorney's office, over the course of 18 years, Steven Shuler, Sr. has produced a lot of inmates.
In DA's lingo, he dug out their old warrants, whether they were served last week or as far back as 1970. As a Case Aide in the Narcotics Bureau, Shuler produces the papers to transport inmates already serving time in jail or prison so they can appear before state Supreme Court Justices. It requires frequent interaction with judges and defense attorneys, as well as attendance in the courtroom. Shuler has become an expert on the court's dealings with drug offenders. He's come to understand how in certain courtrooms, offenders are sent to treatment programs, while others face felony charges.
But perhaps the hardest part of Shuler's work is keeping up with the cases he handles as a delegate for SSEU Local 371. Together with his fellow Bronx District Attorney delegates Danielle Jackson-Cherry and until recently Kyschel Smith (Kyschel has since transferred to a different department), Shuler has handled at least one case a week among the more than 400 members they represent.
"Some of the members are treated very unfairly," Shuler said. "The office now knows they cannot do certain things"—including treating members with disrespect or violating their rights with respect to time and leave, work schedules and due process rules, he said.
Shuler, Jackson-Cherry and Smith have worked with the union organizers and other experts (including Health and Safety Director Jose Santos and former Director Deborah Williams) to address serious issues on site. Recently, the delegates and the union succeeded in getting a complete overhaul of a room that members had been complaining about for years. It was filthy and infested with insects before the renovations.
The union also regularly works with Shuler and other delegates to guide members through the complaint process if they're mistreated at work. After an incident, they work with the supervisor first, then press the issue up the chain of command if necessary, culminating in a grievance if the problem has not been resolved.
"I would say it truly has been rewarding," Shuler said. "A lot of members know they have a voice and they have protectors," he added.