NEW YORK — Nearly 40 years ago, John Felice, OFM, and John McVean, OFM, became concerned with the growing number of homeless people they saw in the neighborhood near St. Francis of Assisi Church on 31st Street. Their observation — followed by hard work and help from friends — evolved into a ministry that has helped many and that was recently recognized.
On Oct. 13, John and John were honored among a group of pioneers of the supportive housing movement in New York City. They were given distinctive recognition by The Supportive Housing Network of New York at its gala for being the first to create housing that provided services to homeless people. What they describe as a “mustard seed” of an idea and “labor of love” served as a model to others.
John and John — referred to in the gala’s program as “the Fathers John”— founded three residences in the early 1980s. All are located in the Chelsea section of Manhattan and all are named for the Order’s founder. The first St. Francis Residence was opened in 1980. It was the first of its kind to offer a comprehensive solution to the problem of homelessness — permanent housing with supportive services. This approach has become an award winning model for programs all over the country, as noted on the website of St. Francis Friends of the Poor, the organization that operates the residences.
The two friars were the first to “actually buy a building, rehab it and offer services to the most vulnerable,” as the SHNNY’s gala booklet says.
“From the beginning, this was a labor of love,” said John Felice, who grew up not far away — on Long Island. “The homeless mentally ill are the last to get appropriate housing and social services. We have been privileged to help start this movement and to see its growth through the city, state and country. We hope to continue in this work for as long as possible.”
In his remarks, at the Thursday evening dinner, John Felice acknowledged people involved in supportive housing and described the changes in laws that lead to the need for programs and residences for those struggling financially and psychologically.
“All went well until the owner of the Aberdeen decided to renovate the building back into a tourist hotel,” said John Felice. “That is when I got involved. We decided that the only way we could protect this fragile population was to buy our own hotel. A brave but naïve endeavor. We found a building on East 24th Street and, with the help of a lot of generous friends we purchased and renovated the property. Two years later, we bought a second building on West 22nd Street and, three years later, purchased a third building on Eighth Avenue between 17th and 28th streets. We wanted to make sure that people understood that this effort was replicable. After that, we stopped. In the end, we were friars and our main goal was to care for the 255 men and women at the three residences. We wanted to know their names and faces and histories and be part of their everyday lives.”
“The small mustard seed that began in our first St. Francis Residence has grown to 200 non-profits supportive housing programs with some 50,000 units of housing in New York City and State,” said John McVean, a native of Rochester, N.Y. “We are proud and honored to have been part of this great effort.
“What I enjoyed most at the gala was seeing so many friends in supportive housing that we have known and worked with for almost 40 years,” he added. “Their support and encouragement has always been a great help as we worked together to develop supportive housing.”
Making an Impact
“The gala was a great event honoring a number of people,” said John Felice. “Some of them were tenants in SRO buildings and people who have recently succeeded in rehab programs. A building developer who helped renovate properties for supportive housing was recognized. At the end of the evening, those who had been in supportive housing and had recently retired were honored.”
“I was asked to speak because John and I founded supportive housing back in 1980,” said John Felice. “Those honored came after us and many learned from our experience.”
Among the guests at the Oct. 13 gala were Stephen Mimnaugh, OFM, director of St. Francis Residences since July, Thomas Walters, OFM, director of tenant services, Gyasi Bramos-Hantman, director of operations, and Chris Frlic, program director.
“We were elated to see John Felice and John McVean honored with their fellow supportive housing founders,” Stephen said. “Joining John and John on stage were others whom we know and admire. The New York supportive housing community profited from the bold vision of these nine honorees. One cannot even estimate the number of lives improved by this group’s commitment to housing with dignity is fundamental human right.”
A booklet distributed at the Oct. 13 gala included a welcome from SHNNY’s executive director Laura Mascush and its board chair Bill Taylor that said “this is a historic moment for our world; since the last gala, the mayor and governor have promised to create 35,000 new units of supportive housing in the next 15 years, in large part due to our community’s advocacy.”
“For more than 20 years, member agencies of The Supportive Housing Network of NY have been dedicated to seeking innovative ways to meet statewide residential needs, helping to improve the quality of life for individuals and families through opportunities for a more stable, independent living environment,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in a letter.
Sarah Schenck, chief communications officer for SHNNY who describes herself as “an ardent admirer of their work,” said “it has been a privilege to get to know John and John.”
“Our members talk about their past lives marked by terrible trauma, mental illness, and chronic homelessness – only to find a home to call their own and a new life of dignity and security at St. Francis, thanks to the work of Fr. John McVean and Fr. John Felice,” she said. “The warm and homey atmosphere of St. Francis is an ongoing testament to the great success of their vision and of the transformative power of the supportive housing movement that they created.” She is a meditation teacher at St. Francis II.
Looking to the Future
This summer, the Fathers John stepped down from their roles as president and vice president of St. Francis Friends of the Poor. Since July 1, Steve has served as executive director.
“The reason we decided to step aside is because we are aging,” said John Felice, noting that John McVean reached his 77th birthday on Oct. 29 and that he will turn 75 on Christmas Eve. “We want to preserve the future of the programs. We both thought that it would be irresponsible of us not to prepare a next generation to carry on the work of the St. Francis Residences.”
“We have 45 dedicated staff making all this possible, along with an extensive management staff,” he said. “Each of the three sites has a full medical and psychiatric staff. Their commitment and care for these men and women have made the residences both a home for our tenants and a source for extensive medical, psychiatric and social services. John and I will still be present at the three residences and I will continue to do development for St. Francis Friends of the Poor.”
“The new administration members are well qualified to take over the residences,” he added. “They have extensive experience in caring for our tenants. We have every confidence that they will bring new life and imagination to the residences.”
The “Fathers John” now work roughly three days a week. They live in the same location they did so many years ago, when they first noticed the need for supportive housing — at St. Francis Friary — adjacent to the historic St. Francis of Assisi Church and less than a block from busy Pennsylvania Railroad Station.
Photos and information about residences can be found on the St. Francis Friends of the Poor website.
— Jocelyn Thomas is director of communications for Holy Name Province.
- “Siena Names Scholarship for John Felice” – April 28, 2010, HNP Today
- “St. Francis Residence II to Mark 25th Anniversary” – May 20, 2009 HNP Today
- “NYC’s St. Francis Residences feel the Christmas Spirit” – Dec. 19, 2007, HNP Today
- “St. Francis Friends of Poor Completes Renovation of Residence” – Sept. 26, 2007, HNP Today
- “Brooke Astor’s Support of St. Francis Residences Fondly Remembered” — Aug. 29, 2007, HNP Today