Gordon J. Campbell, Chief Executive Officer, Safe Horizon: September 11 and Cash Assistance for Immediate Needs

August 5, 2002
Gordon J. Campbell, CEO, Safe Horizon

As the nation's leading provider of victim assistance, advocacy, and violence prevention services, New York City-based Safe Horizon responded quickly and comprehensively to the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. From twenty-four years of experience working with victims of violent crime, officials at Safe Horizon knew that three critical needs would emerge: emergency assistance, information regarding where individuals could receive help, and psychological support and counseling. Sensitive to the pressing financial needs of families who lost loved ones and people who lost their jobs, Safe Horizon became the first organization to issue emergency-relief checks on a same-day basis. As of July 23, the organization had issued over 44,000 emergency-relief checks totaling $100 million.

In the days following the attack, Safe Horizon staff was deployed to five emergency family-assistance centers citywide. Through the centers, nine community offices, and a number of twenty-four-hour telephone hotlines, the organization offered crisis-support counseling, help in coping with trauma, and referrals to resources ranging from housing assistance to mental-health care. Safe Horizon also provided services to businesses, where many employees struggled to cope with loss, grief, and the prospect of re-entering downtown buildings, and in schools, helping children to understand and overcome their fears and training teachers how to work with traumatized kids over time.

In June, Philanthropy News Digest sat down with Safe Horizon CEO Gordon J. Campbell to talk about the services the organization has been providing to victims of the September 11 attack. Prior to becoming Safe Horizon's CEO, Campbell served as the commissioner of the New York City Department of Homeless Services, which provides emergency housing on any given night to 7,200 single men and women and 4,500 families. He also served as the chief of staff for the city's former first deputy mayor, Peter J. Powers, where he developed and executed mayoral policy initiatives covering a wide range of areas, including housing, human services, transportation, and criminal justice. In his more than ten years of service in New York City government, Campbell has been a deputy director in the mayor's Office of Operations and the director of the city's Division of AIDS Services, which he created, organized, and staffed. Prior to his work in New York, Campbell worked in the Seattle City Attorney's Office as a prosecutor, labor attorney, and chief administrator. Campbell received his Juris Doctor from the University of Washington Law School and his Masters in Public Administration from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He currently serves as an adjunct assistant professor of public administration at New York University's Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.

Philanthropy News Digest: Good morning, Gordon. Could you tell us about Safe Horizon and its mission?

Gordon Campbell: Safe Horizon was founded in 1978 and is the nation's leading victim assistance and advocacy organization. Our mission statement is very concise, but it really captures what we do: to provide support, prevent violence, and promote justice for victims of crime and abuse, their families, and their communities. Safe Horizon is New York City-based, and prior to September 11 we were providing services to over two hundred and fifty thousand clients, at seventy-five programs in all five boroughs. We operate over a hundred different locations — we're in all the courts, we're in twenty-five police precincts, we're in forty schools, and we have nine community offices. So we're really a large organization, but we're also a grassroots organization — really tied to the different neighborhoods and communities throughout the city.

PND: What were you doing on the morning of September 11?

GC: I was having breakfast and meeting with our board chair, Susan Solomon, at a small coffee shop on the Upper East Side in Manhattan, when someone came in and told us that a plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers. Susan and I just looked at each other and said, "We need to go." We got on the subway, and as we started heading downtown, we could tell from the expressions of the people who were getting on the train that it was a very, very serious incident. Our subway stop is right at City Hall, and our headquarters are located about five or six blocks from Ground Zero. When we got there, most of the staff was outside. So I started talking to them, and they said there were a couple of senior management folks upstairs. I went upstairs, not only to figure out what we should do in terms of that particular location, but to figure out what we should do in all of our various locations.

About ten minutes later, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker telling everyone to evacuate the building immediately. We looked out the window: people were running down the streets. This is when the first tower imploded. And so we walked west to Greenwich Street, which was essentially the same distance from Ground Zero, and we saw the second tower implode. At that point, Mayor Giuliani and his entourage literally were about fifty feet from us, and he and his top team had nowhere to go.

We then walked up Eighth Avenue, which was just jammed with people — cars were parked in the middle of the street with their doors open; people were standing around listening to radios. If you went into restaurants, people would say, "Do you want water? Do you want to sit down? Do you want to use the rest room?" It can be such a large, impersonal city, but on that morning there was a real outpouring of support. I live just across the street from the American Red Cross, and the lines of people wanting to volunteer and donate blood were wrapping around the corner.

The next day, we regrouped at our conference center in downtown Brooklyn, and our first order of business was to make sure that everyone was okay. Then we said, "We need to get involved. This is who we are." In many ways, the victims of the World Trade Center attack shared many similarities with the victims we had been serving over the past twenty-four years. So the next day, we started training our staff, as well as others, in trauma support and the like.

PND: Safe Horizon was one of the first organizations to receive a grant from the September 11th Fund. How did that particular grant come about?

"...We thought that rather than having people complete an application and telling them that we'd put the check in the mail, wouldn't it be great if people could walk away with the check in hand...."

GC: For many, many years, we had the responsibility of helping people receive compensation from the New York State Crime Victims Board. A couple of days after the attack, representatives from Governor Pataki's office reached out to us and said, "We would like you, Safe Horizon, to be our agent, our representative in New York City." So we literally were one of the first organizations, along with the mayor and other city offices, as well as the Red Cross and Salvation Army, at the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94. And because people were presenting themselves with so many immediate needs — paying bills or rent or whatever — we thought that rather than having people complete an application and telling them that we'd put the check in the mail, wouldn't it be great if people could walk away with the check in hand.

With the funding from the Crime Victims Board, however, we could only help those individuals who had lost a loved one, who were physically injured, and were in a traditional relationship. But we were dealing with displaced workers and residents, same-sex couples, and so on, and we couldn't really help these folks from a financial perspective. So I reached out to key folks at the United Way of New York City and said this is a perfect opportunity to bring together public dollars with private philanthropic dollars. And within twenty-four hours, they got back to me and said that we could proceed. We were able to proceed, in effect, with a handshake over the phone.

So that allowed us to help all the victims that presented themselves. The important point here is that it wasn't about money per se. What we've found in our work over the years is that you've got to really address people's immediate needs — financial issues, housing, navigating the welfare system, whatever they might be — before they'll really talk to you about what they're experiencing and feeling. So once we could actually help someone and they could walk away with a check for a $1,000 or $1,200, that's when they typically opened up and we could begin to provide them with some real strategies for how to cope going forward.

PND: To date, your organization has received $92.5 million from the September 11th Fund. Have you received funds from other agencies or foundations?

GC: We are the largest recipient of funds from the September 11th Fund, and we're also the largest recipient of funds from the Robin Hood Foundation. What's so important about Safe Horizon is that we already had relationships developed with both the United Way and Robin Hood, which has been a longtime supporter of our work. We sat down with them early on and said that this is going to be a long-term effort, and we need to make sure that we have the capacity to sustain a long-term effort. We need to make sure that we can be there, not only tomorrow and the next day, but in the years to come.

So with funding from Robin Hood and the September 11th Fund, we set up offices in each of the outer boroughs, and in each of those offices we're really trying to emulate what went on at the Family Assistance Center, where there was an array of services — not all of them provided by us — so people don't have to go from office to office or from phone number to phone number. We really try to bring all these services together, be it debt counseling, financial assistance, job training, job placement, or whatever. And then we take the lead in terms of trauma support, counseling, and case management. The Robin Hood dollars are really being disbursed based on need and to people doing job training for wage subsidies.

PND: Were you surprised by the outpouring of support, both financial as well as in-kind and from people who wanted to volunteer and give blood, in the weeks following the attacks?

"...September 11 wasn't about New York City. It was about our country, and it really struck at the heart of who we and what we are. And I think people across the country rose to the occasion and said, "What can I do?"..."

GC: Not at all. September 11 wasn't about New York City. It was about our country, and it really struck at the heart of who we and what we are. And I think people across the country rose to the occasion and said, "What can I do?" — whether it was two little girls in San Francisco setting up a lemonade stand or a congregation or synagogue collecting dollars before a service. We had over a thousand volunteers that worked with us on this effort, and they kept coming back again and again, because the Family Assistance Center was running seven days a week, from eight in the morning until midnight.

PND: How are the services Safe Horizon is providing to victims and victims' families different from those the organization has traditionally provided?

GC: I don't know that they're different. I think they're richer, because there's more dollars there, and because we're working to develop a model for a community of services where one agency tries to address a broad range of needs, with the idea that, down the road, this would be applicable to all victims that come through our doors. In terms of lessons learned, it has really provided us with an opportunity to step back and say, "This not only makes sense for victims of September 11, but this makes sense for all the victims we work with." So it's a long-term effort, but it starts with the World Trade Center victims and then expands from there.

PND: Did you coordinate your activities with the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and other relief agencies?

GC: Absolutely. There was no one agency that could take credit and say, "We did it alone." This was all about collaboration. This was all about people working closely together, both from a charity perspective — the Red Cross, the Salvation Army — and from a funding perspective — the United Way, the New York Community Trust, Robin Hood — as well as from a public-sector perspective. And it was particularly challenging because, as you well know, no one had ever planned for something of this magnitude. We learned a lot along the way, but we learned from each other, and people were communicating and working together, at all levels, from day one.

PND: Did you work closely with the Federal Emergency Management Agency?

GC: We worked very closely with FEMA, as well as with the city's Office of Emergency Management. Everyone had one goal, and that was to provide needed assistance to the victims. The challenge was that everyone had a different orientation in terms of guidelines and what documentation was required, so we really tried to make it easier for victims by trying to come up with one intake form and helping victims work through the different agencies.

PND: What was Safe Horizon's position on New York State attorney general Eliot Spitzer's call for a centralized database of recipient information?

GC: I thought it made sense. We actually had our own database from day one, when we started providing financial assistance at the Family Assistance Center and at each of our offices in the outer boroughs. And we found that many victims' families did not feel comfortable coming into the city. For instance, undocumented individuals didn't feel comfortable coming to the Family Assistance Center because there were INS officials and police officers with guns there. But, as I said, one of our goals was to make sure that people didn't have to go from office to office to office. So from a purely parochial perspective, we created a database and then quickly saw that, for it to be effective, it couldn't be limited to information from just one agency. All the agencies needed to work together. So we met with Attorney General Spitzer a number of times and really worked with him and his staff to coordinate with other charities.

PND: And this coordinated effort became the 9/11 United Services Group?

GC: Yes. Because, again, it was quickly apparent that, from a charities perspective, we needed to make sure that as more organizations got involved, they would be operating off the same page. So we made the decision to work together to make sure that we were identifying all the needs of the various victims and that we were operating in a coordinated fashion. Part of that effort involved the database. Another part of it was coming up with a case-management model and developing a minimum level of standards and then having the United Services Group serve as the primary vehicle for communicating to victims — not only here in New York, but across the country — what services were and are available, what the deadlines for applying for those services are, and really providing as much information as possible.

PND: In the weeks and months following the attack, there was a great deal of media scrutiny of the relief agencies and nonprofit service providers. Do you think the criticism of the sector and the way it responded was warranted?

"...It's always easy to find an individual that didn't feel well-served, because after a disaster people are left with a lot of anxiety, a lot of angst, a lot of anger...."

GC: I really think the nonprofit sector rose to the occasion. For example, we've provided services to forty-six thousand victims. When I walk down the street with my Safe Horizon baseball cap or I'm on the subway, I cannot tell you the number of people that come up to me and say, "I really want to thank Safe Horizon." It's always easy to find an individual that didn't feel well-served, because after a disaster people are left with a lot of anxiety, a lot of angst, a lot of anger. And I think, given the unprecedented nature of the attacks, that it was easy for the media to find the negative story. But there were so many positive stories, and some of those stories did appear. But many more just went overlooked.

PND: As someone who has worked closely with a range of communities and community leaders in New York, could you comment on how the events of September 11 changed the city, both in the short run and in terms of its future?

GC: I really think that there's a much greater sense that we need to work together and also that we really need to plan for the future. Just after September 11, it was okay — although it wasn't okay — for people to say that we didn't have a plan. But now we need to make sure we have a plan in place for the next time something like this happens, because, if the president and vice-president and others in the administration are right, there's a very real possibility something like this will happen again.

PND: A final question: What, in your view, were the most important lessons the nonprofit sector learned from 9/11?

GC: I think there are a couple of things: One, whether you're deploying staff or you're ministering and providing support to victims, you need to make sure that you're also being mindful of your staff and providing support for them, because at the same time you're asking your staff to be as responsive as possible to the victims of a disaster, they're going through their own sets of issues. That's something I think all of us need to be more mindful of and much more rigorous about. The second thing is that while there are a lot of efforts underway to enhance our security — at airports, within the FBI and CIA, within local police departments, and so on — the same thing needs to happen in the social-services arena. If there is another attack, be it in Chicago, Miami, New York, or some other city or community, we better be prepared, too.

PND: Well, thank you, Gordon, for speaking to us this morning and for all your efforts on behalf of New York and New Yorkers.

GC: Sure, I really appreciate it.

Kevin Kinsella, PND's managing editor, interviewed Gordon Campbell in June. For more information about the Newsmaker series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@foundationcenter.org.