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Residents find assistance at Woodside on the Move

Bell, a 40-year-old Woodside resident with a decade-long history of debilitating depression, said he stopped paying rent about five months after he moved into his city- and state-subsidized apartment because of what he said were untenable living conditions and racially-motivated harassment.

Now, after fighting the eviction since October, Bell said he is pretty much out of options.

But throughout his ordeal, Bell has found an ally in Woodside on the Move, a local non-profit that since its founding in 1976 has tackled neighborhood problems ranging from graffiti and housing to transportation and the limited summer employment options for area youth.

"If it wasn't for this place, I don't know what I would have done," Bell said of Woodside on the Move, where he said workers have counseled and advised him and allowed him to use their fax and phone. If Bell does not find a way to stay in his apartment, he said Woodside on the Move will help him find another place.

"One of them gave me car fare to get to places I needed to go," Bell said about the staff at Woodside on the Move.

Woodside on the Move's staff of eight works on programs including housing and tenants' rights, small business initiatives, senior services, youth projects, cultural programming and employment counseling.

The non-profit is into so many things that Executive Director Thomas Ryan found it easier to proffer a piece of detailed letterhead rather than recite the list of the programs during a brief introduction to the activities of the group that bills itself as "your community organization."

Housed in a cluttered two-room office on 59th Street, Woodside on the Move has done a lot with its $450,000 annual budget, Ryan said. The organization coordinates a yearly St. Patrick's Day festival on Woodside Avenue that draws people from across all five boroughs, a summer concert series and has helped with commercial revitalization efforts along the Roosevelt Avenue stretch that forms that heart of the neighborhood's business district.

Most of the organization's annual budget comes from a combination of city and state grants, Ryan said. "I'd like it to be a million because we'd get a lot more done," said Ryan, who took the reins in 1992.

One of the group's flagship programs covers housing issues, such as Bell's.

Lisette Mendez, Humberto Vasquez and Maria Ocasio man the station where Woodside on the Move organizes building tenants' associations, provides assistance in filling out New York State Housing Authority Applications and files petitions for rent freezes for elderly residents.

"There comes a lot of seniors in here with a lot of problems with the housing," said Ocasio, a native Spanish speaker who, along with the group's employment services coordinator Gene Curry, has helped Bell. Ryan said all of the housing counselors are bilingual, a reflection of the area's shifting demographics.

Nora Arrieta, a Spanish-speaking Jackson Heights resident, has been coming for six months to Woodside on the Move for help in filing her NYSHA application. Arrieta, now in her 60s, has lived in her third-floor apartment for 24 years, but after a stroke and with arthritis she needs a first-floor apartment or a building with an elevator. "I walk up the stairs and I get winded," Arrieta said in Spanish.

Woodside on the Move does not just help people move into or work in the area; the group is also looking to help people move about the area.

Last month Ryan drafted a $10 million transit proposal aimed at turning Woodside - which he calls "the heart of the Big Apple" and "the geographic center of New York City" - into a regional transportation hub.

The plan, Ryan said, calls for infrastructure development to better connect the confusing mishmash of transit services - subways, buses, highways and rail lines - that intertwine in the neighborhood.

"I don't do this for the money," said Ryan, a certified public accountant. "There's not enough to keep me here."

Ryan, who had been active in the community for years before taking over at Woodside on the Move, said he does his job for love of the neighborhood.

Eric Schramm, Woodside on the Move's bookkeeper and a part-time writing instructor at Queens College, echoed the sentiment.

"You don't do this to be a high-paid, high-powered executive," said Schramm, who has been there for seven years. "But I do feel I'm part of something that's making a difference."

Reach reporter James DeWeese by e-mail at news@timesledger.com, or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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