New York City’s Aberdeen Hotel and the Origins of “Supportive Housing”
In metropolitan areas like New York City, patients discharged from state mental institutions gravitated to commercial single-room occupancy (SRO) hotels, where rent costs were low, lease agreements were not required, and landlords accepted the daily or weekly rent paid by welfare. Most such settings offered a small room, with a shared bathroom, and some had no access to a kitchen. Often located in semi-commercial neighborhoods, by the 1970s, many were rundown and living conditions were substandard (shnny.org/learn-more/history-of-supportive-housing/). In these settings, patients often lived side by side with a criminal element and active substance users.
In the early 1970s, Fathers John Felice and John McVean, Franciscan priests affiliated with a parish in Manhattan’s West Thirties, became aware that people discharged from state mental institutions were living at a neighborhood SRO, the Aberdeen Hotel. Concern for the unmet needs of the hotel residents led the priests to obtain two rooms from the hotel management so that mental health services could be provided on-site by a New York State aftercare clinic and the Department of Psychiatry at Bellevue Hospital. A kitchen was also set up to serve hot meals to the hotel residents.
By the mid-1970s, the stock of SRO housing was in decline. Federal urban renewal programs and local tax abatements to spur gentrification in declining neighborhoods created a strong incentive for landlords to upgrade to commercial hotels or market-rate apartments. Consequently, the services at the Aberdeen Hotel were threatened when, in 1979, a new owner of the hotel planned to renovate and upgrade the facility into a moderately priced tourist hotel.
Committed to continuing their work with the discharged mentally ill, the priests set about trying to lease or buy a hotel for this purpose. With funds belonging to the Franciscan Order and interest-free loans, they were able to purchase a hotel on East 24th Street. The St. Francis Residence opened in 1980 and was the first of its kind to provide permanent housing and supportive services to homeless people with severe mental illness. The success of this first endeavor let to the development of two additional St. Francis Residences, and the model created by Frs. Felice and McVean has inspired the development of supportive housing worldwide (www.stfran- cisfriends.org).