Options for community living making Long Islanders Less Vulnerable



With May being Mental Health Awareness Month and mental health being on the rise today, we had the opportunity to sit down with Yolanda Robano-Gross LMSW, MHA, and Chief Executive Officer of Options for Community Living (Options) and gain her insight on what Options does to help vulnerable Long Islanders about mental health, housing, homelessness, and those who are HIV+/living with Aids.

How did you come to work at Options for Community Living?

YRG: I was working at a large organization in NYC. My daughter was having spinal surgery, and I was in the parent’s waiting room.  To pass the time, I checked emails and scrolled through internet postings. I saw the job listing for Options and it caught my attention. In 1995, I was working as a social worker at Mercy Medical Center in Rockville Centre. A staff member from Options came to do a presentation on their new (and innovative) services for individuals who were HIV+.  I still had the person’s business card in my rolodex. I remembered thinking that I would be proud to be a member of an organization that was always so ahead of its time, so I applied. 

Options serves the LI community. Share with us your services.

YRG: We serve adults and children from three primary populations; those who are in recovery from mental illness, those who are HIV+/living with AIDS, and those who are unhoused or at risk for homelessness. Our programs run the gamut from housing to care coordination to case management to home and community-based programs to financial assistance programs.

Do you think our government is doing enough to support the people living with HIV/Aids?

YRG: There is always more work to be done, more funding, more affordable housing, and less stigma. With the addition of many great new pharmaceuticals, individuals who are HIV+/living with AIDS are doing just that, LIVING! However, until the epidemic is eradicated, more needs to be done. In particular, the stigma that still accompanies HIV needs to be obliterated. It’s 2024!

Do you think our government is doing enough as it pertains to mental illness?

YRG: I would have to say the same. We’ve seen some movement from Albany this year, and that’s fantastic, and much appreciated, but there’s so much more to be done.  Affordable housing opportunities for individuals with mental health issues is greatly needed. In addition to this, we need opportunities for vocational training, affordable tracks for continuing education so people can have a job that allows them to sustain themselves and their families. And compassion, we need to show our neighbors some kindness! We live in a world where 1 in 5 people is diagnosed with a mental illness. Walk up and down your block and count the houses and you will get a good picture of those numbers. No one asks for an illness of any kind, but what people do want is an opportunity to belong. Advocacy is essential to moving the needle in this direction.

Are you seeing the homelessness rate rise given the state of the economy as well as other factors?

YRG: Yes. COVID affected housing security for those who didn’t think it would be. The numbers say that many Long Islanders are 4 to 6 paychecks away from housing insecurity. Due to business closings and/or illness caused by COVID, many people who lived check to check, found themselves on the other end of those 6 weeks. We all know that Long Island is an expensive place to live. As my daughter readies to graduate college, she and many of her friends are considering moving out of state. In order for Long Island to continue to thrive and grow, we need to find a way to keep our young adults local.

Please provide one or two examples of the outcomes for the people you assist through the program.

YRG: What makes me proudest is when we can house someone. We have a couple that was street homeless for 21 years! They lived in an encampment that is literally right under the noses of many of your readers. To get a tear filled call the morning of a first snow from people thanking you for the warmth and safety of a home is a feeling that is indescribable.  

What would you like to see more of from our young philanthropists of today?

YRG: Get involved! Our young people have such dedication and passion, and it needs to be shown! Get a group of friends together and volunteer to run a hygiene supply drive or do a spring clean-up! Apply to join our board of directors, we need voices for all age groups! Advocate for people in need! Offer a kind word or a smile to someone you pass. You never know what is happening in someone’s world and that kind word could make all the difference in a decision that person makes that day.

May is a month to reflect on Mental Health awareness.  Do you think our community is doing enough to support this cause?

YRG: Again, unfortunately, I’d have to say no.  I am a 4th generation 5 Towns resident on both sides, raising a 5th generation 5 Towns resident.  One thing that I’ve always been taught and seen here is that our little corner of the world embraces diversity and accepts people for who they are.  Lately, I’ve noticed a change. Many appear to have a very narrow or stereotypical mindset regarding mental health.  We need to encourage education in our community.  We need to encourage inclusivity in our community.  We need to take a moment to speak to each other and realize that our similarities are far greater than our differences.  Mental health, stability, a good work/life balance is something we all struggle with every day.  The degrees may vary, but we all need to ensure that our mental health is in check.  I believe that increased education backed by some basic human kindness will go a long way to increase awareness.

There is a painful amount of stigma attached to mental health.  What are some of the ways individuals can have that conversation with those who struggle with mental health challenges?

YRG: Just like you have a conversation with anyone else. Look, if you’re diabetic and you need to take insulin so that you can lead a productive life, no one says a word.  So, it should bear out that if you have bipolar disorder and need to take medication to have that very same productive life, it should be met with the same amount of acceptability.  It’s 2024!  There is no reason for the stigma that we still see.  No one, ever, asks to be sick, whether that illness is physical or mental and the world would be a better place if people remembered that.

Congratulations! We hear that one of our favorite former NY Jets Safety, Erik Coleman, has recently become involved with Options. What will Erik’s involvement look like?

YRG: We’ve just started our partnership with Erik and so far, it’s been great!  He is a wonderful man who has a personal connection to the cause and is fiercely committed to this community.  We look forward to doing great things together.

Are there any upcoming events that you would like to share with us?

YRG: We just completed our hugely successful 2nd annual Murder Mystery event on April 13th at Mulcahy’s.  We are starting plans for next year’s already!  We have some events coming in the fall so watch for the dates. In the meantime, follow up on Facebook and Instagram and at our website optionscl.org.  The readers can also reach out via phone at 631-361-9020.