A Home Heals Most Wounds

New York Newsday | July 13, 1988

By Stephanie Golden

When you visit The Heights – the city’s first single-room-occupancy hotel created specifically for homeless single adults – you stop at a small, pleasant reception room hung with plants and you sign in with the front-desk manager. This person, in sole charge of building security, is not a salaried outsider, but one of the 55 Heights residents. Giving homeless people ,a management role is part of the concept of this Washington Heights residence,
a five-story building at 530 West 178th Street acquired from the city.

The residence was designed as a simple solution to a problem that has been called overwhelmingly complex. It’s commonly assumed that many homeless people are incompetent at the tasks of daily life and must be segregated in custom-designed facilities with specialized support services. Those said to be mentally ill are thought to require treatment or custodial care.

Almost all the projects currently being developed under the city’s Capital Budget Homeless Housing Program, for example, are for “special needs” groups such as unwed teen-age mothers or mentally disabled adults. Many of the facilities are “transitional” residents are supposed to get rehabilitated, find jobs and apartments and move out.

By contrast, The Heights is an integrated, more humane model of what homeless people can achieve, and much cheaper besides. Its director, Ellen Baxter, believes that simply giving people a stable place to live provides enough support for them to pull their lives together. For most Heights tenants this has proved true, even though initial screening was minimal and did not exclude people with a history of drug or behavior problems.

The simple human connection that develops in a community such as the Heights provides enough support to enable people to live decent, human lives, even when they are not fully functional. To the residents, psychiatric categories have become irrelevant. Such “symptoms” as hearing voices are viewed as part of someone’s personality, like smoking or snoring, and people accept them on that level.

The Heights houses people of different sexes, ages, races, ethnic backgrounds and physical and mental abilities. Most of the residents live independent lives, responsible for their own cooking, shopping and cleaning. They hold leases, and most have been there since the building opened in January 1986. Support – largely for problems with government entitlements – is available from a service staff provided by Columbia University Community Services and the city’s Crisis Intervention Services. When necessary, they direct residents to specialized programs such as drug counseling.

Although its tenants are certainly poor, The Heights doesn’t look like most people’s idea of low-income housing. Its renovation, financed by a low-interest city, loan, a conventional bank loan, a state grant and private investment, created a bright, clean dwelling featuring bare brick walls, red-tiled floors and quantities of elegant period furniture donated by the Hotel Pierre and lovingly reupholstered and repainted by one of the tenants. Each floor has 12 private¬† rooms, three shared bathrooms, a kitchen and a lounge.

The tenants have invested tremendous energy and determination in their home. In the difficult early days, they were instrumental in overcoming a serious drug problem. They now staff the reception desk around the clock and run the building during the evenings and weekends after the staff goes home. A tenant committee shares responsibility for evaluating prospective residents.

Fifteen rooms are reserved for people with chronic mental health  problems, for whom the staff provides extra support. They coexist well with more capable tenants, even forming friendships with them. Some are desk managers and tenant-association leaders. The Heights works because it allows human feeling to perform its normal function of creating relationships Рeven among people who had been isolated.

The neighborhood has given The Heights broad support as an alternative to the nearby Fort Washington Armory men’s shelter. It is a simple, cost-effective model that can be replicated; a few similar proiects already exist, including four residences developed by Catholic Charities in Brooklyn.

The sticking point is money. The essential operational funding element for these projects is Section 8 federal rent subsidies, which the Reagan administration has shut off for new applicants. Recently the city and state developed a small pool of SRO subsidy money, and the city committed some capital funds to perserving SRO housing. But without the guaranteed rental income Section 8 funds provide, or an increased commitment by the city and state, private lenders are unwilling to finiance rehabilitation, and large-scale replication of The Heights is impossible.

© 2020 Broadway Housing Communites, Inc.