EXCERPTS FROM: NEW YORK TIMES,
NEW YORK NEWSDAY, THE ANTHONIAN, CATHOLIC
NEW YORK & FRIAR LINES.
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
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
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
".... 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.