Eli led city social services through budget woes

chisara2_CSA_
Photo by Mason Kroll.

When Chisara Asomugha MED ’09 stepped into her new office on the second floor of City Hall in late August 2009, the Community Services Administration was undergoing a transformation.

Asomugha assumed the reins of the New Haven’s CSA amid a series of spending cuts in the department triggered by drying federal and state funds. The CSA, which oversees city’s social service agencies, witnessed significant layoffs in February 2009: five of the nine CSA staff and 12 employees from health and elderly services were laid off, according to the New Haven Independent.

Three years later, Asomugha left the trimmer CSA last month with several key accomplishments under her belt, especially in the fields of public health and women’s issues. Half a million dollars in human services budget cuts were made since the 2008-’09 fiscal year, and CSA staff, public servants and Yale students credit Asomugha with shepherding the CSA through years of drastically decreased funding.

“She’s been in charge of bringing us through this hard time for community services,” Ward 7 Alderman Douglas Hausladen ’04 said.

DEVELOPING FOCUS

In her role as community services administrator, Asomugha brought her experience with public health to confront disease and health problems within the city.

Asomugha arrived at the CSA “particularly well-suited toward public health work,” said City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04, thanks to her role as a pediatrician.

Asomugha earned a master’s degree in public health from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2002 while working toward an MD from Duke Univeristy, which she received in 2004. In 2007, Asomugha moved to New Haven to begin courses for a master’s of health science degree at the Yale School of Medicine, where she then served as an adjunct clinical instructor.

Asomugha did not respond to several requests for comment.

The CSA oversees the city’s elderly services, youth and health departments, and is responsible for administering federal, state and local funds among social service needs.

When Asomugha took office at the helm of the CSA, health problems abounded in the city, according to a 2009 door-to-door survey conducted by the Community Alliance for Research and Engagement. Physical activity among New Haven children was “declining” and availability of health care services to uninsured residents remained a “concern.” The privately funded Health Equity Alliance had just been started to investigate over a two-year period the underlying causes of city health disparities and train people who work in public health to incorporate the findings into their jobs, said Mario Garcia SPH ’02, director of the New Haven Health Department.

In 2010, Asomugha launched a public health campaign called Health Matters! as requested by the HEA to continue promoting its mission long-term. Health Matters! included the formation of a coalition of community agencies under the direction of Asomugha to discuss New Haven health issues such as how to promote disease prevention, Garcia said.

“This is not a project that is funded to produce specific outcomes,” Garcia said. “It’s about maintaining this ongoing discussion among agencies.”

In this project and others, Asomugha revamped the way the CSA interacts with data, focusing on more data-driven policies as a result, Hausladen said. The CSA worked closely with DataHaven, a Connecticut nonprofit that compiles and shares public information, to identify health problems among New Haven residents for the Health Matters! campaign.

ONGOING ISSUES

Asomugha made issues affecting girls and women a high priority during her tenure. In late 2010, Asomugha assembled a group of women from City Hall, Yale and several New Haven organizations to research and create a framework for a quantitative report on the status of females in New Haven. The report, written by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, based in Washington, D.C., in partnership with the consortium, examined employment, economics, education, health, safety and political participation of women and girls.

Connie Cho ’13, who was the City Hall liaison to the consortium last spring as part of a Dwight Hall program, said that Asomugha had an ambitious conception of what the CSA could do for the city.

“Dr. Asomugha had an eye for addressing the problems of marginalized communities and groups,” Cho said. “I think she was always willing to take on huge systemic problems and was always an optimist about what City Hall could do for the people of New Haven.”

Asomugha was one of six City Hall administrators evaluated directly by Mayor John Destefano Jr. in the most recent 2011 evaluation, released this February. While Asomugha received a “satisfactory” rating, DeStefano’s assessment of her performance was less favorable than that of the past two years. He said the success of the CSA’s initiatives had been “mixed,” citing “uneven” progress in areas such as addressing violence and education needs and strong advances in public health and homelessness.

Yale students involved in the Yale Hunger and Homelessness Action Project said they wished Asomugha had focused more resources on issues related to helping the homelessness in the city.

Amalia Skilton ’13, co-director of YHHAP from November 2010 to November 2011, complimented Asomugha’s dedication to homelessness prevention and rapid rehousing but cited concerns about the administration of homelessness funds and response to shelter complaints.

According to Skilton, clients of Emergency Shelter Management Services, a homeless shelter on Grand Avenue, attempted to organize against the shelter in the fall of 2010 for its poor treatment, including a lack of towels and sheets. In some cases, clients were forced to leave the shelter in the middle of the winter during the early morning. Asomugha did not respond to the situation, Skilton said.

Gabriel Zucker ’12, YHHAP’s co-director in 2010, said he recognized that Asomugha’s job involved many responsibilities, of which homelessness was just one part, but he wished she had created an overarching strategy to combat homelessness.

None of the City Hall staff interviewed knew why Asomugha chose to step down nor what her next position would be. Asomugha stepped down from her City Hall position Aug. 3.

“Dr. Asomugha left the City on very good terms,” City Hall spokeswoman Benton said. “She was well-liked and well-respected and led the Community Services Administration with grace and expertise.”

Ron Manning, Asomugha’s deputy, is currently serving as acting administrator while the city conducts a national search for her successor.

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