Saint Francis Residences Adapted by Peter A. Fiore, O.F.M.

Three friars, through their own fundraising organization, St. Francis’ Friends of the Poor, were able to open St. Francis Residence I in 1980. John Felice, in commenting to the editor on the fifteen year venture, said: “It is important to note the significance of the three Saint Francis Residences. We were the first to develop the concept of permanent housing with on-site services in the community for the chronic mentally ill homeless. This is what is now called supported housing. John McVean played a key role in the creation of this idea. I came along when it became necessary with the management skills to put up the bricks and mortar of the first residence. Tom Walters added the boundless energy and patience it takes to deliver the needed hands- on services to this fragile population.

The province played an essential part in all this. Not only did they free us to do this work, they loaned us the money to complete the first residence and stood by us in the good days and bad as we developed the second and third residences. This aspect was critical because it showed that the program was highly replicable. The province should be justly proud because of the uncounted thousands that have benefited from this approach.

The other day Pamela Brier came by for a tour and visit. She is the executive director of Bellevue Hospital and its renowned department of psychiatry. By charter, Bellevue is mandated to take the poorest, sickest and most desperate of our society and give them the best treatment available. We admire this greatly. Bellevue is our primary source of referrals and over half our current tenants come from Bellevue. She, like so many others, commented on the humanity, dignity and warmth of our residences.

Fr. John Felice at lunch with tenants The following is a updated version of an article entitled “Friends of the Poor: Franciscans provide a home for Manhattan’s mentally ill homeless” in The Anthonian (November, 1989), based on articles by James C.G. Conniff in Catholic New York: Daniel Goleman, David Bird and Mary Cantwell in The New York Times: Sydney Schanberg in New York Newsday and Fr. Cassian Miles, O.F.M. Vol. VII No. I 1995

The day before her visit, Steve Kroft came by for a tour. He is one of the correspondents on the TV program “60 Minutes.” A group called the Corporation for Supported Housing brought him to St. Francis Residence III. He is planning to do a show on the concept of supported housing. We helped get CSH started. We convinced them of the value of this kind of housing and urged them to take this idea national. CSH is now in seven cities around the country, developing programs like ours.

We are often asked if we will do a fourth residence (and well we might). We always smile and say there is a fourth and fifth St. Francis Residences opening somewhere in the country. All of them are stepchildren of a little building on East 24th Street called St. Francis Residence I, started by a couple of friars who, once upon a time, didn’t even know the difference between a riser and a drain pipe.

Nice room – a home – at one of the residences. Only two credentials govern admission. You have to be mentally ill. And you have to be homeless. There are 320 men and women in that doubly tragic category who now grope their way toward rejoining humanity in this residential triad of mercy. The residences and their programs have become national models of how to look after the problems of the homeless.

Through their work in the 1970s with people in single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels in the neighborhood of St. Francis Church, Fr. Felice and Frs. John McVean and Thomas Walters gradually discovered their own approach to dealing with New York City’s mentally ill homeless. When developers’ plans to convert one SRO hotel the friars were working at threatened to make the tenants homeless again, the Franciscans decided to raise the necessary money and get their own hotel elsewhere.

The trust has been beaten out of them by the streets and by their illness. Every day you walk by them and you say, ‘Good morning, Tom,’ or whatever the resident’s name is. No response. And then, one day, they turn around and say ‘Good morning’ back – and you see the beginnings of a human being again.”

Fr. John Felice is talking. Dressed in a sport shirt and dungarees, the former pastor of St. Francis of Assisi Church on Manhattan’s West 31st Street is leaning against a bright, cheery wall in one of three residences that the Franciscans began operating to a very special client nine years ago. The friar’s attire typifies their style of leading without a heavy overlay of authority.Religion, sex, race, national origin and all that have nothing to do with getting you a Fr. Tom Walters with Geneva and Gloria at Easter dinner in Residence III

As the result of monies gained through their own fundraising organization, St. Francis’ Friends of the Poor, the friars were able to open St. Francis Residence I in 1980 at 125 East 24th Street, in a reconverted 100-unit SRO hotel.

The operation soon proved so successful -and met with such praise from the city and state – that only two years later the friars opened Residence II in another SRO hotel with 115 rooms at 155 West 22nd Street. Then in 1987, Residence III – probably the last in the planned series of ‘homes’ for the mentally ill homeless – opened in a smaller SRO hotel of 80 rooms at 148 Eighth Avenue, between 17th and 18th Streets.

Fr. Felice’s duties at the residence include handling maintenance of the buildings and any management problems that develop. Joining him in supervisory responsibilities at the residences are two fellow Franciscans from St. Francis Friary. Fr. John McVean handles matters involving personnel, the agencies they come from and contracts. Fr. Thomas Walters focuses on Community Support Services, a key source of funding that contributes some $600,000 a year. Theirs is a hands-on ministry with no trappings.

Says Fr. Felice, “On any given day, you’ll find Fr. Tom running around trying to respond to 30 errands that everybody has for him, like shopping for a mini-refrigerator for someone’s room or answering requests like ‘I need a new dress’ or ‘I need a pair of shoes’ or ‘I need a haircut’ – which he actually does himself. You see, he’s a barber!”

In their admittedly limited response to the plight of an estimated 40,000 homeless on New York’s streets, at least a third of whom are also mentally ill and worsened by street life, the Franciscans entertain no Pollyannaish illusions about the end-game result of the housing and services they provide.

“While it’s gratifying for us all to see a totally catatonic individual begin to grow and fill out again,” says Fr. John, “that doesn’t mean they get better in the way society understands getting better. But for us who live with an irreversibly mind-battered person, the slightest sign of improvement is a miracle, a thrill far more exciting than even to see a building being readied to give them a home. The building is the means, not the purpose. The residents are the purpose.”

One man who had been homeless for years, and had all that time worn a heavy wool overcoat, continued to wear it after he moved into one of the St. Francis residences. For months the staff suggested that he remove it. He finally did one hot summer day.

“For us, that was an improvement,” said Fr. McVean. “We take the most fragile of the homeless and create a home for them with supporting services. Once they come here, we expect they’ll stay with us the rest of their lives.”

All of them qualify for Social Security disability stipends or other government support. Most checks are sent to the residences, and, after the monthly rent is taken out, the tenants are given their spending money for each day.

And then while most residents busy themselves in various ways throughout the day, some will go to one or another psychiatric treatment program. It is this partnership with psychiatry that enables the residences to run so smoothly.

Staff members help the residents reopen to life as much as possible, but they are not psychiatrists. Before a schizophrenic can be admitted to any St. Francis residence, he must be stabilized by psychiatric treatment. And if his condition worsens, he will be transferred to the psychiatric unit at Bellevue Hospital.

“We have to live with the sad fact,” says Fr. Felice, “That we deal with a permanently disabled population. Traditional therapy is based on the potential for reconstructing a personality. With our clients, this in fact will not take place.”

Each week in each residence Fr. Walters runs a tenants’ council meeting. The friars regard this as a kind of low-grade therapy, in that it helps the clients to understand that someone cares about them. “In concert with psychiatric and social services,” Fr. Walters says, “the council seeks to overcome the isolation that schizophrenia can cause by bringing people together to develop communal bonds and to enhance each one’s sense of human dignity.”

A typical agenda deals with issues concerning living together, upcoming social activities, suggestions on improving their home, maintaining the residence and ventilating complaints. And the sharing of ideas gets results. “The tenants have voted in a coffee group that meets each night,” Fr. Walters points out, “an evening of bingo and an afternoon of current video releases. They plan the menus for cook-outs, picnics and special parties through the year. They volunteer for house jobs, many of which they have created.”

Each residence has a full-time nurse therapist and two full-time activity therapists supported by a grant from New York State, and a full-time social worker from the Human Resources Administration. In addition there are two part-time psychiatrists from Bellevue Medical Center and a practitioner from St. Vincent’s Hospital. Each building also has its own manager and desk clerks who provide 24-hour service at the front desk. Two janitors and a maintenance man keep each building clean and running smoothly.

Every tenant lives in his or her own room, sharing a bathroom down the hall with four others. The rooms are, like everything else in the residences, bright and clean. The wood furniture is basic and sturdy and does not look institutional. “In renovating the hotels, we took pains to make sure the environment for our residents would be as homey as possible,” says Fr. Walters.

Though some of the Tenants’ behavior and speech is eccentric, none of it seems troubling or violent. There is, on the contrary, a gentleness to it. “Cindy,” a cheerful woman with a smile that reveals several missing teeth, says she spent eight years on the street. “I feel like I’ve come home already,” she says. “I like the food. I don’t have to worry too much about money.”

The stark contrast between the seemingly hopeless lives most of the residents were living on the city’s streets a few years ago and their life today is brought out in the activities available for them at the residences. There are art classes, workshops in music and flower-arranging, cooking lessons, visits to museums and parks, trips to the movies. “They take us places like the Whitney Museum,” says “Betty,” a woman of 66. “It gives you ideas on things to paint. Would you like to see some of my other work?”

Betty guides a visitor up a flight of steps to her room – a small but bright cubicle that is nearly taken up with the bed and a chair of bleached wood. The walls are almost covered with her flower paintings. The room is small, she says, “but it has everything I want.”

She reaches into a drawer and pulls out two clippings from The New York Times dated 1938. One announces her engagement, the other her wedding. The headline says she lived in Rye and was the daughter of a banker. There is a two column picture of Betty in her wedding dress.

“That was me,” she says slowly, looking up from the clipping. “And that was my mother’s house,” she says, pointing to one of her paintings. The house in the picture is large and rambling, surrounded by high trees and heavy snowdrifts.
Her mother and father are gone, and her husband is, too.

Like Betty, many of the tenants of the residences have spent long periods in mental hospitals, mostly for treatment of schizophrenia. Many have been stabilized on drugs and released in recent years. Those who don’t live in the residences-or the city’s shelters or other facilities-simply walk the streets.

Fr. Felice believes that the personal touches of the friars and staff members-like knowing everyone’s name, being approachable, being flexible with house rules-provide “that little odd Franciscan twist, which is belief in the ultimate value of the individual human being. That person is God-created and God-loved no matter his or her dilemma. They are responsive to that.”

“We don’t function here as priests,” he notes. “We’re nonsectarian. All kinds of religions are here. But the tenants know who we are. They have a sense of stability, of permanence, that they feel from our connection with the Church. This is important to lives that have been chaotic.”

A recently completed study by Dr. Frank Lipton, director of the psychiatric emergency unit at Bellevue, points to the unique value of the residences provided by the Franciscans. Dr. Lipton studied a group of homeless schizophrenics who had been brought in by the police because they were threatening other people or in danger of suicide. Some had been homeless for as long as five years.

After treatment at Bellevue, half the group were discharged to the usual settings, ranging from state hospitals and city shelters to adult homes. And half the group, assigned at random, were sent to the St. Francis Residence II. A year later, the difference between the groups was dramatic.

Those sent to St. Francis residence spent an average of 20 nights of the following year homeless again; most of the small number who left the residence did so in the first few weeks. For those sent elsewhere, the number of homeless nights during that year was 121.”The beauty of St. Francis is that everyone there is watched,” said Dr. Lipton. “If something starts to go wrong, it will be picked up early.”

One surprising advantage of the approach to the homeless developed by the Franciscans is its frugality. The cost of hospitalizing a psychiatric patient in a city hospital is $500 to $600 a day. In a state mental hospital the cost is $150 each day. In a community home, such as the St. Francis residences, it is $15 per day.

For those who wonder what the government might save the taxpayer if it replicated the St. Francis model instead of putting people in shelters, the numbers show that over a 10-year period, the savings on these 300 tenants alone will be nearly $20 million.

When observers note such statistics, they naturally inquire why the Franciscans haven’t moved to acquire additional hotels for more residences to serve the thousands of mentally ill people still out on the streets. The friars nod in agreement with this logic-but feel such endeavors will have to be undertaken by others. Their personal Franciscan touch has gone the limit, they believe.

“We feel that if we start getting much larger than we are, we’re going to become bureaucrats and not know anybody,” says Fr. McVean. “We’ll end up sitting behind desks and trying to run this machinery. We would lose all human contact. That’s not why we started this. That’s exactly the opposite.”

They prefer to channel the useful things they’ve learned into the hands of people who come to Manhattan, or send for information, from big cities such as Los Angeles, Phoenix and Chicago that face the same problem of mentally ill street people.

“We feel that the experience we’ve built up over the years is invaluable for anyone interested in doing something constructive about this overwhelming crisis,” says Fr. Felice. “We are really minor experts, if you will, in the area of mental health in the community, particularly for the severely disabled, and also in the area of low-income housing where homelessness has become a major social issue.

“We intend to get involved, formally as consultants to community organizations nationwide, to help them with the selection of sites, development of funding sources, putting together the realities of ‘doing a building’-design, architecture, engineering, contractor selection, on-site supervision, performance schedules, the works. We also have a lot to share about on-site training of management and program staffs.”

Along with welcoming people from cities all over the United States, the Franciscans have recently hosted several groups from London. Fr. Felice points out that the city is ‘currently facing the same problems with the homeless, and have come to learn from our experience.” In August, he and Fr. McVean spoke about their ministry at a workshop on SROs and the role they play in solving the housing crisis during the convention of the American Institute of Architects in San Diego, California.

The five-story Residence III in Manhattan’s Chelsea section is dedicated to Albert H. Pettis, the former director of the first residence who died of cancer three years ago. A “backyard” area is big enough to handle basketball and volleyball courts that were recently set up for the use of the residents. Another feature is an inner courtyard with a staircase that winds up to a skylight.

The walls are painted yellow, the decorative wrought-iron railing a soft green. Potted plants warm the lobby. Tenants’ paintings hang in the lounge and the other common rooms. Lovely oak doors welcome the guests and visitors. The 19th-century orange brick exterior has been steam-cleaned.

One of the residents there is Bob, a 57 year-old former movie usher who has arthritis trouble with his legs. “They’re concerned about us, concerned about our health,” he says to a visitor about the Franciscans. “You have the feeling you’re not alone.”