Last month, the supportive housing community lost one of our best: Joe McKenzie-Hamilton from the West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing (WSFSSH). Joe died at home from sudden cardiac arrest on Wednesday, July 8, 2020. He is survived by his wife Sabra, son Adam (23), daughter Sophia (21), and son Brendan (18). Joe was a loving spouse, father, brother, son, uncle, colleague, and friend who cared more for others than he did for himself.
The loss is devastating to all of us who knew him and benefited from his compassion, knowledge and energy. Joe was kind and funny and a remarkable social worker who lived his life in pursuit of social justice.
Joe was with WSFSSH for nearly 30 years, in a variety of positions. He started his career at WSFSSH as a “floater” at Fleming House, doing whatever it took to care for the residents. This is a quality that defined Joe’s entire time at WSFSSH. He eventually became the Director of Fleming House demonstrating his love for the residents and also his talent as an inspiring and caring manager.
Joe was the founding Director of the Claremont, where he, together with the staff, built the Claremont literally from the flicker of a good idea into a strong and supportive community. It is a community that has continued to grow, rooted in this foundation, adapting to the ever-changing needs of the residents.
Three years ago, Joe shifted from the Claremont to the central office where he assumed the role of the Director of Quality Assurance. In this role, Joe worked to share best practices between the buildings and to facilitate communication throughout WSFSSH. Another important part of his work was staff training. Joe has trained almost every WSFSSH staff person in some aspect of his or her position. He excelled at training, always able to use humor and lived experience to impart his knowledge. No one ever fell asleep at one of his trainings.
Joe was WSFSSH’s representative to the Health & Housing Consortium, an organization that promotes the relationship between housing and healthcare. Joe joined the Consortium’s Bronx Steering Committee in 2014, became the Treasurer of the Board in 2017, and spearheaded the Consortium’s interagency case conferences for many years. He also served as the official “welcomer” at countless Consortium events, as there was no one better than Joe to let someone know they were in the right place and that we were glad to have them.
Joe was also actively involved in The Catholic Worker––through which he met his wife Sabra––and participated in supporting equitable trade practices in Central America. In all aspects of his life, Joe lived the values of care and service to others.
A hallmark of Joe’s career at WSFSSH was his mentorship of employees. So many WSFSSH employees describe Joe’s attention, direction and guidance as being of paramount importance in their career at WSFSSH and in their lives. Joe’s work with employees has strengthened WSFSSH by nurturing staff and thus providing continuity and quality services to our residents. We are heartened that even though we have lost one of the best far too soon, a new generation of social workers and other direct care staff have been influenced by Joe’s example.
If you knew Joe, you may recall a signature response he gave anytime you asked how he was doing:
“Better for the sight of you.”
Joe always made you feel seen and valued. He believed in the inherent worth of every person and that no one needed to do anything to be worthy of dignity and respect. Those of us who work with people who have experienced homelessness have witnessed how the systems that are supposed to help can instead dehumanize people and exacerbate their trauma. Joe understood the moral injustice of homelessness and spent his career welcoming home those who had been denied that fundamental right.
We want to close by sharing a short clip from a panel Joe spoke on at the Network’s annual supportive housing conference in 2016. Here, with his quintessential humor and sincerity, Joe shares some guiding principles for his work: treat every person with dignity and respect, create community in order to build connection and combat isolation, and support the frontline staff who are working under some of the most difficult circumstances. These principles feel more important than ever.
Joe, this world was better for the sight of you. Our hearts are broken, but we will keep you with us as we strive to do the good work you exemplified.
Paul R. Freitag
West Side Federation for Senior and Supportive Housing
The Health & Housing Consortium
Read Joe's obituary. If you wish to offer a gift in honor of Joe, please feel free to contribute directly to The New York Catholic Worker, 36 East 1st Street, NY, NY 10003 or Friends of San Lucas Toliman, Guatemala