St. Francis Residence II to Mark 25th Anniversary

John Felice, OFM Features

On June 24, St. Francis Residence II, the second of three apartment houses for the mentally ill run by St. Francis Friends of the Poor in New York City, will celebrate its 25th anniversary. When the residences opened in the early 1980s, they were an early model to get the homeless and mentally ill off the streets and to return dignity to their lives. Since then, the three residences have been lauded by the city and state as exemplary programs. John Felice, OFM, looks back on the grand opening of Residence II and shares how the residences have changed the face of homelessness in New York City.

NEW YORK — I remember the day well. June 24, 1984, was a sunny day. After 17 months of renovating a badly run-down single-room-occupancy hotel, we were finally ready for the grand opening of St. Francis Residence II on West 22nd Street here. 

There was a lot of excitement. New York City Mayor Edward Koch came with his advisors. City Council President Carol Bellamy was so excited she appointed herself unofficial hostess of the event, greeting everyone. Our board of directors, who stood with us through thick and thin, as well as many advocates for the homeless, were on hand. Tenants and staff gave tours of the new facility.

First Project of its Kind
Amid all the excitement, only gradually did we begin to understand the significance of this event. We had opened St. Francis Residence I two years earlier on East 24th Street. It was the first project of its kind to offer permanent housing for the homeless in New York City.

In the early 1980s, thousands of men and women filled the streets and subways of the city, many newly released from state mental hospitals. No agencies or the city had plans for how to house them, other than in already overcrowded city shelters. St. Francis Friends of the Poor (SFFP) envisioned providing permanent housing with supportive services in a safe and humane setting that could give back a sense of dignity and worth to people. 

Since the first St. Francis Residence was a success, John McVean, OFM, Tom Walters, OFM, and I thought we could provide a second. That decision was critical, because it showed that the first residence was not a fluke. It meant that our approach was replicable.

A New Approach to Homelessness
As friars, we brought a different perspective to the issue of homelessness. The alarming number of homeless people on the streets was a concern because we knew that each man and woman fell through the cracks, one at a time. We wanted to restore their lives to them, one at a time. They had names, faces and histories; they needed individual support and concern. Human respect and acceptance was as important as a place to call home.

The concept we started was shared with city, state and U.S. officials, and the model was tailored to the needs of each particular locale. Today, in New York City alone, there are more than 16,000 units of housing modeled after ours, with 9,000 more on the drawing board.

From the beginning, we focused on the needs of men and women with long histories of chronic mental illness. The three St. Francis Residences now have 255 units of housing for this fragile population. We have an ongoing relationship with a nursing home, which supports an average of 25 of our tenants who are either in rehabilitation or need more care than we can provide. When Sister Death calls, if there is no family, we bury our dead at Calvary Cemetery in Queens, with plots donated by the Secular Franciscans of 31st Street and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Along with the June 24 anniversary celebration of Residence II, we are dedicating new SFFP offices at the residence. For the past six years, we have rented office space on West 30th Street. As part of our long-range plan, we decided it was necessary to have offices on site to serve the needs of those who come after us, either friars or lay staff. 

The reward for serving this population has not dimmed with the years. The well-worn sentiment is true: We have received far more than we have given to these least of our brothers and sisters.

Anniversary Celebration in June
On June 24, the Residence II community will celebrate from 3 to 6 p.m. All friars and former staff are invited to join the SSFP Board of Directors and tenants on this occasion. Tenants will be sporting their special “25th Anniversary” polo shirts. The residence is located at 155 W. 22nd St.

—Fr. John, a former HNP Provincial Minister, is president of St. Francis Friends of the Poor, which runs the St. Francis Residences in New York City.