Helping Families When Hardship Hits

—Ellen M. Snyder-Grenier

Now more than ever, as the coronavirus pandemic shutters businesses and further widens America’s income divide, Henry Street is seeing countless families having to make difficult decisions as they navigate an unimaginable crisis in the midst of sickness and heartbreak. Many are forced to weigh going to work with their obligations to an older or immunocompromised relative or care for their at-home children. It’s a time much like another.

In July 1907, a Henry Street visiting nurse was making her rounds through the city. By late morning, she’d examined a sickly infant born into a family left destitute by the father’s death, ministered to a family stricken by pneumonia, and tended to an elderly disabled woman and her son. Next was one of her most wrenching cases. In a dark tenement, a dying man lay alone. His wife was at work, sewing garments for a local sweatshop; she found it unbearable to be away from him in his final weeks, but feared losing her job if she fell behind. The nurse did what she could to make the man comfortable, and continued on her rounds. Then the idea came to her: Henry Street would hire someone to do the sewing for the man’s wife, freeing her to spend all of her time with her dying husband—without losing her livelihood when she found herself alone.

A Henry Street visiting nurse examines an infant as family members look on, about 1905. Courtesy of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York Records, Archives & Special Collections, Columbia University Health Sciences Library

Today, Henry Street is there to help families navigate hard times and hard decisions, whether making calls to housebound seniors isolated from their loved ones, providing meals for families in its supportive and transitional housing, or helping the school-aged children in its shelters navigate the challenges of online learning. As it always has, Henry Street’s history provides a blueprint for making decisions in the present as it moves through this current pandemic. In times of crisis, the Settlement acts.

The House on Henry StreetEllen M. Snyder-Grenier is a national-award-winning curator and writer, and principal of REW & Co. She has directed research projects, developed physical and digital exhibitions, and written on the history of New York City—as well the urban centers of Newark and Philadelphia—with a focus on social justice. The author of an award-winning history of Brooklyn, Snyder-Grenier is a Fellow of the New York Academy of History. Her new book The House on Henry Street: The Enduring Life of a Lower East Side Settlement is coming this June from NYU Press. 

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