Census, buses, vets’ aid are main topics 1

Rep. Nydia Velazquez speaks during a Woodhaven town hall meeting as Mark Holmes, center, chief officer for operations and planning for MTA Bus, and Vincent Garcia, director of intergovernmental affairs for the city Department of Veterans’ Services, look on.

Congresswoman Nydia Velazquez (D-Brooklyn, Queens) held a town hall meeting on Mon., Feb 3 at the American Legion Hall in Woodhaven to discuss the U.S. Census, the MTA’s bus route redesign plans, veterans’ services and homeowner assistance programs.

Velazquez spoke of the importance of the Census that will take place this year, which not only will result in how many congressional districts will be apportioned for each state, but also where federal dollars will be spent on highway planning and construction, social safety net spending, medical assistance programs, Pell grants and much more. “We want to get a complete and accurate count of all the people living in the United States,” Velazquez said.

The Trump administration’s efforts to include a citizenship question in the 2020 Census was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2019. “Title 13 [the law governing the administering of the Census] is silent on asking about citizenship,” said Rep. Velazquez.

Rep. Velazquez introduced U.S. Census Regional Director Jeff Behler to speak about the 2020 Census. Behler explained that the best way to ensure a complete and accurate count is to get the word out on a local level. “Tell your neighbors to respond to the survey and work as a census taker in your neighborhood,” he said.

According to Behler, services will be negatively impacted if there is an undercount. As an example, Behler said, “Think of 100 students where 20 of them are not counted. Not only will those 20 students lose [funding], but the 80 students will suffer [for the loss of funding].”

Behler assured that all information collected by the Census Bureau is protected by federal law under Title 13 and that every Census employee takes a sworn oath to never divulge any information collected for a lifetime, under penalty of five years’ imprisonment and/or a $250,000 fine. Federal law protects the personal information collected by the Census Bureau and it is prevented by law from sharing information with other government agencies.

Behler told the audience that mailings of the 2020 Census questionnaires would begin in March and census takers would begin counting large groups, like nursing homes, in April, with the bulk of households that have not responded to the mailings being visited by census takers in June.

MTA Chief Officer of Operations and Planning Mark Holmes spoke about the redesigning of bus routes, including Select Bus Service. Holmes has held several workshops with communities in Queens to develop a revised draft of the bus routes and how best to implement the changes, which he could not explain at great length because other speakers needed their time to speak.

Democratic Assembly 23 District Leader Lew Simon wasn’t happy about the bus plan, saying of SBS, “I know you’ve taken our input but your redesign stinks ... I hope you rethink your plan.”

Holmes explained that the MTA redesign plan is still in a draft stage and that nothing has been decided.

A woman from the audience expressed her concern that the design of the Q53 bus route should consider children. “On behalf of the children who take the Q53, some of the children are just 10 years old ... and you must listen to the children.”

“You will hear some updates on the plan in the next couple of months, June or July. We are working with our elected officials and community boards and community relations,” Holmes said.

“There are valid concerns and I hope that we can have this meeting and conversation where I want to make sure that the issues here for the Woodhaven and Ozone Park communities are observed,” Velazquez said.

Another speaker, Community Board 9 District Manager James McClelland, told attendees, “We are here to serve you and we are honored to serve Woodhaven and Ozone Park and if there is anything we can do, please call our office.”

Next speaker was Miriam Martin, the director of Neighborhood Housing Services of Queens, a nonprofit group. She spoke of offering services such as first-time homebuyers programs, assisting with property tax arrears, applying for property tax credits, mortgage default assistance and the Home Emergency Assistance Program for emergency repairs.

“All of these programs are free, with the exception of the first-time homebuyers program,” said Martin.

Vincent Garcia, director of intergovernmental affairs for the city Department of Veterans’ Services, provided an update on major policies and proposals affecting veterans regarding economic empowerment, housing security and lasting health and wellness. He also spoke of Job Path, a tool for veterans leaving the service that translates a military resume into a civilian resume a hiring manager can better understand, and helps them get into the civilian workforce, whether public or private sector.

Garcia explained, “Job Path also focuses on the hiring manager, who’s most likely not a veteran, to take classes to train them to understand what a veteran is, what these certain jobs look like, what is the transition period, and what that veteran can do for that employer.”

The agency also assists veterans in finding benefits with the Veterans’ Administration.

“We don’t forget our mandate of our organization to assist and end veterans’ homelessness,” Garcia added.

“I have always looked at ways to help veterans, especially those that are coming back and re-entering civilian life,” Velazquez said. “I was the author of legislation that created outreach business centers throughout the United States under the Small Business Administration. I passed the law, and we provide low-interest loans to veterans so that they can open their businesses.”

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