In October 2007, Kica Matos, a city community services administrator, visited Yale to address the Yale Political Union on key issues pertaining to the public safety of immigrants in New Haven. Her speech, during a debate about providing services for immigrants, enumerated the challenges in her line of work — undocumented families, for instance, renting spaces in unlivable conditions targeted by thieves.
Speaking about one family whose landlord cut utilities for a late rent payment rather than serve an eviction notice, Matos said, “There was no electricity, no heat and 11 people plus an infant child living in a one-room apartment.”
But through her work, co-workers say, Matos has bettered the lives of many. Matos, who has served as the community services administrator for the past two and a half years, will be leaving in June for a job with the New York–based nonprofit Atlantic Philanthropies. And though the civil rights advocate has worked to ameliorate race relations in the city, her tenure has been fraught with controversy, most notably over the Elm City ID card, her creation.
“Kica has been an instrumental member of the team at City Hall,” City Hall spokeswoman Jessica Mayorga said. “Her efforts have impacted real change in the city.”
Matos, a resident of Fair Haven, said her work here in the Elm City helped her advance her career.
“[My new position] is a wonderful opportunity that came along and was too hard to pass up,” she said in an interview Monday.
But, she added, her laughter belying a hint of sadness, through her civil work she has become attached to the city and its people.
“It’s going to be very difficult to walk away from City Hall,” she said.” I’ve been challenged in so many ways and have really enjoyed working for the mayor and the city.”
Through her work in the Mayor’s Office, Matos has affected citizens throughout New Haven’s different social spheres. Along with her work for elderly services, substance abuse and prevention, and public health, Matos focused on three central initiatives — immigration integration, prisoner re-entry and the Department of Youth. She said she worked to expand social services to disenfranchised groups whose needs were unmet before Matos arrived.
But the community activist did not shy away from a defining truth about her job.
“The hours are long,” Matos said. “If you’re interested in working in a 9 to 5 position that doesn’t have you thinking about your work past 5 o’ clock then this is definitely not the position for you.”
Furthermore, Matos said the city’s Community Services Department was hard-hit by the economic crisis, which hampered its presence in the community.
“It’s been tough,” Matos said. “We had to close down three out of five senior centers within New Haven neighborhoods.”
Matos, who oversaw a $20.1 million department budget, noted that her budget was reduced by 41 percent and that, due to those budget cuts, 19 people from her department were laid off.
But Matos said she is used to challenges.
Matos spearheaded the Elm City Resident ID Card, which was designed to give all New Haven residents a form of identification, regardless of immigration status. The card, now available to residents of all ages, can also be used to access the library, as a form of debit and to pay parking meters. When the cards first came out in July 2007, over 3,350 IDs were issued.
Yet having received national coverage, the card — and Matos’ role in its implementation — was immediately a source of controversy. Dustin Gold, chief strategist and president of the local political action group Community Watchdog Project, said he is glad Matos is leaving the city.
“Matos and DeStefano are worthless,” Gold said. “I believe the Elm City card is a bad thing and violates federal law … They are using the card as a way to make illegals their customers for the new bank that they were working on downtown.”
Matos previously served five years as the executive director of JUNTA for Progressive Action, a community-based nonprofit organization in New Haven which provides social services and support to Latino communities, another civil rights organization Gold said he despises.
“All these organizations, like JUNTA, are traitorous organizations,” Gold said.
But Matos has been noted by Yale Law School professor and JUNTA board of directors member Brett Dignam as the person who helped give JUNTA a voice on the local and national level.
“Kica is an enormously talented and energetic leader,” Dignam said. “Together with other leaders, she promoted a vision of providing economic development tools, important educational resources and creative, therapeutic childcare through extensive collaborative efforts.”
Unwilling to cut ties with past endeavors such as these, she said she plans to commute to New York while residing in Fair Haven, where she said she will remain engaged with the community in a volunteer capacity.
“Aqui me quedo,” Matos said with a laugh. “I’m not going anywhere.”