Staff Spotlight: How Luis Builds Community and Maintains Safe Housing

Staff Spotlight: How Luis Builds Community and Maintains Safe Housing

05/14/2020

Although The Fortune Society is providing most services remotely, our housing units in West Harlem are continuing to provide safe homes to people with justice involvement during COVID-19. Following careful health protocols, staff continue to work on-site several days a week, providing housing during times when it is especially crucial for health and social distancing.

One staff member who has been key to keeping Fortune’s housing units up and running is Luis Garrastegue. As Director of Housing, Luis helps oversee the health and safety of more than 140 residents. He continues to build the community during times of isolation and is heartened by the unity and cooperation he sees among residents and staff.

“Everybody's been very supportive of each other, and that gives me a lot of comfort, a lot of pride,” said Luis. ”It speaks volumes to the work that we do and the relationship that we have with our residents.”

As Director of Housing, Luis helps manage services at Fortune’s housing units in West Harlem—The Fortune Academy (also called “The Castle) and Castle Gardens. First opened in 2002, The Academy is an emergency and transitional supportive housing program, which pairs case management and services with housing for people coming home from incarceration. Castle Gardens is a mixed-use, supportive housing center, providing long-term homes to people with justice involvement and their families, as well as low-income individuals in the surrounding area.

“For us, the important thing is making sure that the residents know we’re still available to them,” he said. “That we didn't abandon them. That whatever their needs are, we're here to address them. And that they are safe.”

To do this, staff established strong communication with residents, helping secure cell phones for people who needed them and teaching everyone to use applications like Zoom.

“We’re reaching out to [residents] more frequently than we normally would have, which is a plus,” he said.

Luis works on-site three to four days a week, working from home on the other days. He supervises seven case managers, who largely work with residents remotely. In addition to his typical responsibilities of overseeing residents’ connections to services, he now helps ensure they have personal protective equipment (PPE), regular meals, and follow social distancing protocol.

“We wanted to give residents as much reassurance that we're going to manage this pandemic together,” Luis said.

Despite drastic changes in protocol, Luis said there continues to be a strong sense of community. Residents express gratitude at the opportunity to live in safe housing and proactively help each other to get through trying times.

Having worked at Fortune for 16 years‚ more than six of which were at Fortune’s housing, Luis says this sense of community and looking out for each other is nothing new.

“It makes me feel good that we’re all working together as a team... to overcome this pandemic, to get through this with minimal pain,” he said. “The fact that we had no resistance is a testament to the community that we have here and will continue to maintain.”

In addition to ensuring the safety of residents, Luis also makes sure that staff are protected on-site, understanding that many of them go home to families. Luis himself hasn’t physically seen his family in several weeks, making the decision to stay home alone in the interest of their safety.

“It can be lonely because it’s just me and my dog all the time, except for when I go to work,” he said.

Although, Luis’s responsibilities have changed with the pandemic, his goal of giving people the space and shelter to change their lives keeps him going.

“That's what keeps me motivated—when we help our residents secure their own apartment, when they have their own place,” he said. “You see their smile, you see their appreciation, you see the excitement. It’s a beautiful thing.”

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