Saint Francis Residences

    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.

    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.

    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 cookouts, picnics and special parties through the year. They volunteer for house jobs, many of which they have created."

    A weekly meeting of the tenants' council with Fr. Tom Walters.

    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."

    Both breakfast and lunch are provided for the tenants on a daily basis.

    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."

    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."

    "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 for a very special clientele nine years ago. The friar's attire typifies their style of leading without a heavy overlay of authority.

    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."

    ".... 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 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.