This remarkable story starts in the mid-1970s, a more hectic time than usual in New York City. A rush of development and gentrification of the city’s older districts followed the recession following the 1973 oil crisis. At the same time, New York State discharged thousands of patients from its psychiatric institutions anticipating better care in communities instead of warehousing patients in institutions. The only problem was, says Fr. McVean, “There was no community to receive them. A few had families who took them in, but most ended up living on the streets. Some who could afford it found refuge in the SRO hotels”.
At the same time, Fr. McVean had started a new ministry for senior citizens at St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st street. Reaching out to the elderly brought him to the Aberdeen Hotel, an old SRO hotel where some of the former patients had found rooms. Fr. McVean met a psychiatric social worker there, who suggested that they combine their interest for the elderly and the mentally ill, since many of the residents qualified on both accounts. Wearing his clerical suit and Roman collar and accompanied by a visiting nurse in her white uniform and cap, the friar invited the tenants to come downstairs for a cup of coffee or tea with the others. This evolved into provision of desperately needed services including medical and psychiatric treatment.
In 1979, just as the tenants began to form some semblance of community, the hotel owners announced they were selling the property to the developers creating a real threat of eviction and homelessness. Fr. McVean turned to Fr. Felice, then pastor of the St. Francis of Assisi Church. Together they convinced Holy Name Province that a project combining housing, medical care, and personal support could keep these vulnerable people from hitting the streets. The province provided the initial funds to open a refurbished 100 unit SRO hotel on East 24th street, which became St. Francis Residence I in 1980.
Meanwhile, Fr. Felice had joined the project full-time, lending his pastoral and administrative talents. Fr. Walters also came on board with his counselling skills. The project proved so successful that it became a national model. Two years later positive publicity enabled the friars, through their newly organized St Francis Friends of the Poor, to acquire and renovate St. Francis Residence II. In 1987, the friars also established a smaller SRO hotel as St. Francis Residence III on 8th avenue between 17th and 18th Streets.