Picture this; you wake up on a therapeutic mattress and push aside your shades to catch a glimpse of the city’s hustle and bustle. Next, you reach into your mini fridge for a bottle of water and begin your day thereafter. You walk downstairs, locking your private room behind you, and check out today’s lunch menu. Barbeque chicken, you rejoice knowing there is a warm meal, but then remember that this is your new normal. For breakfast you are joined by friends you’ve made in the weeks since you moved in. On your way to check-in with Nurse Peggy, you remember that time she came to check on you when you didn’t come downstairs one morning. You feel at home knowing there is someone looking out for you. Later that day, after your walk to the farmer’s market, you stop-by the art room to look over the daily newspaper, where you read an article titled, “Deaths among NYC’s homeless population reach record high in 2022.” And you cannot help feeling a sense of survivor’s guilt.
There is a residence on West 22nd Street where this is the reality for about 100 men and women. On East 24th Street there is room for 90 and on Eighth Avenue, 80 more. Nearly 300 formerly homeless men and women experiencing serious mental illness call the St. Francis Residences their home – not a temporary shelter, not a mental institution, not a concrete sidewalk – a true home.
St. Francis Friends of the Poor (SFFP) was established in 1980, although the work to do something more for the homeless, mentally ill ‘living’ on the streets began 10 years earlier for three Franciscan friars. At the time, services from local hospitals, psychiatric centers, and social workers were provided to homeless folks residing in abandoned hotel buildings across the city. Three Franciscan friars who knew the necessity of these services also understood that more needed to be done. Upon the sale of the abandoned west Manhattan hotel the friars had been working out of, they knew the fate of those men and women residing in the space. “We saw that people were in danger of being in the street, literally, so we started looking for our own hotel,” said Father McVean. In 1980, the friars purchased their first building on East 24th Street but did not stop there. “Our purpose in buying the property was to move the program and the people,” Father McVean explained. A purpose which has transformed into a model of care we are all familiar with today, permanent supportive housing.
The program which began all those years ago evolved, from social workers and nurses visiting individuals experiencing homelessness, into a full range of home-based and community services. Today, arts, wellness, meals, medical and benefits management programs are available to each tenant. Services such as medical and benefits management allow tenants to lead a sustainable healthy lifestyle, backed by the full support of caring staff. At the core of these programs lies the resolute team of case managers, nurses, psychiatrists and more who meet weekly to discuss the progress of each tenant. Using a holistic approach, their serious mental illness always stands at the center of any programming. For example, in addition to serving healthy meals, tenants are encouraged to participate in nutrition groups, exercise classes and recreational activities and so much more. The opportunity to participate in these activities means that tenants whose medications often include side effects such as weight gain and lethargy, have the support to get and stay healthy.
Fast forward more than four decades since its inception; not much has changed in the landscape of homeless services across the city. In 1981, Father McVean noted, “We all have a common goal: to keep people out of the hospitals, and to keep them in a safe and healthy environment.” A goal for which SFFP has kept their end of the bargain. For more than forty-years (and counting!), SFFP has helped hundreds of formerly homeless adults living with serious mental illness get healthy and stay housed with an 18-year average length of tenancy. “Our tenants, with an average life span of 68 years, are living longer and healthier lives than many individuals with chronic mental illness ‘living’ on the streets or in shelters, jails, or hospitals, whose average life expectancy is between 42 and 52 years” said SFFP Executive Director, Christina Byrne. As the COVID-19 Pandemic ravaged New York and escalated critical care disparities city-wide, SFFP was steadfast in their commitment to provide essential services to this most vulnerable population. “The staff worked tirelessly through the pandemic to keep everyone healthy and safe, and it worked! Over 95% of our tenants received the recommended COVID vaccines and we did not have any fatal COVID-19 outbreaks across the three residences.” said Christina Byrne.
Tenant, Monica, puts it best when she recalls her multi-year experience with homelessness, “I have nowhere to sleep, where do you expect me to go? I do not care about the food, I have nowhere to sleep tonight.” The shelters she encountered over the three-year period of homelessness often offered her food and a chair to sleep in, but never a permanent solution to her chronic homelessness, let alone her serious mental illness. But in June 2020, Monica’s journey led her to the St. Francis Residences, where she is living her best life with the support from staff and her peers. She enthusiastically participates in wellness activities such as “salad group,” enjoys exploring the city’s offerings and going on ‘road trips’ to the country, and takes joy in helping her peers where she can. Monica is only one beam of light out of nearly 300 others who call the St. Francis Residences, home. Should you like to learn more of our tenants’ life stories and see what they are up to today, please visit www.stfrancisfriends.org to learn more.