How We House the Hardest-to-Help Homeless

Posted on December 18, 2017 by admin  |  Share

Sheltering Those Who Lived on the Streets for Years

By Jacqueline Victoria-Kline

Program Director

Jackie Victoria-Kline (R) decorates Holy Rosary
Shelter Christmas party tree

“Providing Help. Creating Hope.”  This is not just our Catholic Charities motto; it’s words I see in action every day at Holy Rosary, a former convent and house of prayer where New York City’s hardest-to-help homeless, those plagued by severe mental disorders and living on the streets for years, now call “home.” 

Who are these new Holy Rosary residents and how were we able to reach them?

They are mothers and fathers, grandparents, widows, sons and daughters. Currently there are 30 residents at Holy Rosary with multiple cultural and ethnic backgrounds (Caucasian, African American, African, Asian, and Latino). Some had been living on streets and subways for 2 years, others for over 20 years. Most suffer from bipolar, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorders and have a long history of substance abuse addiction including opiates, heroin, cocaine/crack, K2 and alcohol.

Let me introduce you to a few.  To give them privacy – something completely absent during the years they huddled under blankets on the streets – I am substituting initials for their names. 

KH lived on the streets for seven years before moving into Holy Rosary.  He said he lost faith in the “shelter system” and never thought he could find or keep a job or have his own place in the city. Here he became engaged with case management services and was linked to mental health services.  Finally he received the ongoing treatment and psychotropic medications he needed to help decrease the symptoms associated with his bipolar disorder. He found work. And, in September 2016, KH was placed in a studio apartment through Volunteer of America’s Supportive Housing program . He calls Holy Rosary a “miracle place.”

Another resident, GN, who had been homeless for over 20 years, said: “I was lost for a long time. I did not know what it was like to have your life back, to have self-respect until I came here.”

EA and CR go to church every Sunday. EA said: “I’m alive because of my faith in God. I’m blessed for the roof on my head and a bed to sleep.” Holy Rosary is EA’s only hope because the prospect for him to obtain long-term housing is unlikely due to his legal residency status.

We know the homeless crisis in New York City and around the country is rising.  Catholic Charities has taken a firm stand to address this issue.  We are responding to the Mayor’s Office initiative to partner with faith-based organizations to help decrease the rise in the number of street homeless in the city.

Holy Rosary Facade in East Harlem

The Holy Rosary- Stabilization Bed program was created in June 2016 under a partnership between Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York and the Bowery Residents Committee (BRC) with funding from the Department of Homeless Services (DHS). Under this partnership, BRC is responsible for the 24/7 day-to-day program operations while Catholic Charities serves as a subcontractor to deliver on-site holistic and comprehensive case management services to formerly homeless adult males and females with severe mental illness and substance abuse addition. This program, a unique low threshold, harm reduction model, is located at the former convent of the Holy Rosary Church at 448 E. 119th street in East Harlem. Already, we have served over 50 homeless men and women.

After living on the streets for years, our new Holy Rosary residents are becoming acclimated to community living. They have re-learned how to take care of themselves, to share a meal at a table; to participate in a group, and share their personal stories about how their “faith” had given them strength over the years while living in the streets. Most have been linked to mental health and medical services and entitlements.  Some received help obtaining lost documentation needed to establish their identity. And, more importantly, they have connected to who they are as people and regained a sense of self-respect, long lost on the street.

These men and women are smart, intelligent, talented and true survivors. Some also had careers, like the economist from Nigeria, the carpenter from Guyana, the chef from West Indies, and the artist from China, to name a few.  Some are Christians, Muslims and Catholics.

Our residents love to eat warm, home-cooked meals.  Some like to garden, watch movies, BBQ, go to museums, bowl and wear clean clothes. They are human beings like the rest of us. They are not defined by their pathology or addiction!

A Holy Rosary Resident photographed during a
2016 Christmas Event with Cardinal Dolan

These “chronic mentally ill street homeless” were removed from the streets and provided with shelter.  More importantly, they have been treated with respect, without judgment, and with the human dignity they deserve. Most have reconnected with who they are as men and women as they continue to struggle with their addiction and mental illness and work toward a more permanent and stable housing situation beyond Holy Rosary.

To me this is mental health in action. This is Catholic Charities in action- “providing help and creating hope” one homeless person at a time! Or, as Saint Mother Teresa said: “doing small things with great love!”

In the joy of Christmas!