Abandoned Hotel Thrives as New Home for Former Homeless

Columbia University Community Affairs Newsletter | May 1992

The most unusual feature a visitor might notice about the Rio, a recently renovated Washington Heights hotel that now serves as a residence for about 100 formerly homeless individuals and families, is its lack of unusual features. And that is precisely the goal of the people at Columbia University Community Services (CUCS), which provides social services to the residents of the building at 10 Fort Washington Ave. and W. 160th St.

“We have tried to create normal housing, using principles that would hold for any other building,” said Tony Hannigan, executive director. “We wanted a mixed population – young people, old people, working people, nonworking people, higher income individuals and lower income individuals. We believe the tenet of normalcy is critical.”

One part of that philosophy that differs from the previous five buildings in which CUCS has been involved is the inclusion of families. “We noticed that when children visited tenants in other buildings, it seemed to have a positive effect,” Hannigan said.. “We started dealing with that on a small scale at the Rio.” In addition to 75 studio apartments in the Rio, there are seven two-bedroom apartments housing families.

One resident, Pat Simmons, 33, was recently reunited with her three children, ages 14, 13 and 8. Simmons is a recovering addict and former homeless single parent who has gone through addiction and parenting counseling with CUCS. She learned of the family accommodations at the Rio when she was called to arrange interviews for two single friends. Her goals include passing the GED exam and getting a better job, but her first priority is her family. “I’m taking the time to know my kids again,” she said.

Building residents were chosen after an interview process that determined their problems such as drug addiction or mental illness, their ability to recognize those problems, the potential effects of the problems on other residents and the amount of social service support they need. Social service staff are at the building Monday through Friday, 10:00 A.M. to 8:00 P.M.

“The Basic requirement is that they can live independently with minimal social services. They must be able to manage their own affairs,” Hannigan said. “Ultimately, if a resident has a problem but does not want our help and the problem does not pose difficulties to other tenants, it is not a central issue for us.”

Aside from caring for themselves and their children, residents must pay section 8 rent (30 percent of their income) and follow stipulations such as one prohibiting pets. The Rio also has voluntarily formed tenant association.

The four-story building, with it’s abundance of windows, white-washed walls, new elevators, tiled or refinished hard wood floors and modern kitchens and baths, is sparsely furnished but homey and bright. The residents who come and go are of all ages and ethnic groups.

Front-door security is managed around-the-clock by tenants. And workers from the not-for-profit management organization, Broadway Housing Development, complete the morning bustle, buffing floors and performing other maintenance duties.

The program director, Susan Boyce Snyder, has an office on the top floor near the community room. She emphasized the community spirit of the building and the special role of CUCS staff. “The tenants know us. They know our families. But no one’s required to work with us,” she said. Their objectives are to help residents rebuild their lives and provide them support in becoming a part of not only the local community but also the global community. For instance, Snyder took some pro-choice residents to Washington, D.C., for the Apr. 5 rally.

Tenants such as Ron Reed are receiving help in job hunting. Reed became homeless as a result of a failed landscape business and the alienation of his family. He was recommended for housing by CUCS after he visited a drop-in treatment program. He explained the importance of getting a good permanent job and the steps he must take. With the Rio’s staff, he has looked into job openings for messengers and in his field, horticulture. “Anything [CUCS] can do for me, they do for me,” he said.

The model the Rio is providing as a mixed-population residence is likely to be repeated if funding can be arranged. Hannigan points to current funding regulations that create problems for programs that involve more than just senior citizens or just mentally ill individuals.

Bureaucratic tangles may arise, for instance, when staff members paid from a fund for mentally ill individuals try to serve those who are not mentally ill or families. In the meantime, residents at the Rio are enjoying the benefits of its facilities and the chance to rebuild their lives. Pat Simmons was able to see her son Michael take his first solo bike ride. And Ron Reed has taken to making jewelry for other folks in the building. “I feel like I’ve died and gone to heaven,” he said.

© 2020 Broadway Housing Communites, Inc.