A Clean, Safe Place the Homeless Can Call Home

By Sydney H. Schanberg
New York Newsday, November 20, 1987

At the St. Francis residences, you can sleep late. That may not sound like much in the everyday world, but it’s a glorious luxury to someone who’s been living on sidewalks or in warehouse-style shelters or in Bellevue’s psychiatric ward.

And sleeping late is but one of the special grace notes at the residences. There are art classes, workshops in music and flower-arranging, cooking lessons, visits to museums and parks, trips to the movies.

Then, too, there’s a tenants council that meets once a week to air problems and help run things. It’s very important to note that these people pay rent and are regarded as tenants — actually a family of tenants. They are not patients or inmates — and the St. Francis houses are not institutions. They are places where people live.

The people are chronic mentally ill men and women, nearly all of whom were among the legions of homeless before coming to the St. Francis residences. They are schizophrenics — the kind of people the city is now taking involuntarily off the streets and committing to Bellevue and other institutions. There are not enough places like the St. Francis homes to care for them, so that’s the big question about the city’s new commitment program — where will they go after they are removed from the streets?

Roughly 300 men and women live in the three St. Francis residences, which have become national models of how to look after these troubled people and thus how to deal with an important aspect of the homeless problem.

The first residence was opened in 1980, the third last May. The whole thing was conceived and is now managed and led by three Franciscan priests — Fathers John McWean, 47, John Felice, 45, and Thomas Walters, 32. They are, in effect, the leaders of the family.

They lead without any heavy overlay of authority. They wear jeans and open-necked shirts. Sometimes they’ll cut a tenant’s hair. Sometimes they’ll shop for a mini-refrigerator for a tenant’s room. It’s a hands-on ministry with no trappings.

“They’re concerned about us, concerned about our health,” says Bob, a 57-year-old former movie usher who has arthritis trouble with his legs. “You have the feeling you’re not alone.” Bob says all this unsolicited to a reporter, who was asking him about other things.

Bob lives in the latest residence, a five-story old law tenement building with an iron fire escape on Eighth Avenue, between 17th and 18th Streets. As part of the renovation process, the outside brick has been steamed orange clean. Inside, a wonderful staircase winds Alfred Hitchcock-like up to the 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.

A tall older man named George comes into the room shared by the full-time nurse and other members of the support staff. He is wearing a raincoat stained heavily down the front. He has come to talk to the nurse about his medication — the psychotropic drugs they all take to keep them stable. After the medical conversation is over, the nurse says, gently: “George, why don’t you get that coat washed. It’s getting a little dirty.” He says: “I’m worried about washing it, it might shrink and get too tight.” The nurse then suggests cleaning instead of washing, and George says okay, he’ll do it later. Just another instance of someone looking after a member of the family.

The residences run rather inexpensively. Much of the overhead is covered by tenants’ rent payments, which come from their monthly Federal Supplemental Security Income checks. Other costs, such as the salaries of the nurse and the city social worker, are paid by government or private funding. It all comes out to $15 a day per tenant. This compares with $30-$35 the city spends per day for every person it houses in a mass shelter — the kind of place that the tenants of the St. Francis residences are terrified of.

Each of them now 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.

The St. Francis residences take the most fragile and chronic of the mentally ill. They do screen out those with a serious history of alcohol or substance abuse and those with homicidal behavior. “You’ve got to figure,” said Father Felice, “they’re coming here for the rest of their lives.”

They also do not take people who have money or other alternatives. “These are precious beds,” says the priest.

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.

Elein, a very cheerful woman with a smile that reveals several missing teeth, says she spent eight years on the streets and is now getting over the ailments she picked up there. “I feel like I’ve come home already,” she says. “I’m resting here. I like the food. I don’t have to worry too much about money.”

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

The Franciscan priests say that they themselves do not wish to keep adding residences. They fear that they could become bureaucrats and lose their sense of individual ministry. But they say they will be glad to pass on what they have learned. “What we hope,” says Father McVean, “is to encourage and teach other groups how to do it.”

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