Schenectady

Schenectady City Mission leader advocates for the homeless amid crisis

Saccocio draws on faith for toughest time in his 31 years at nonprofit
Mike Saccocio, right, talks to chef Lloyd Noland to check in with all areas of the City Mission in Schenectady.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Mike Saccocio, right, talks to chef Lloyd Noland to check in with all areas of the City Mission in Schenectady.

Categories: Rising to the Challenge, Schenectady County, Special Sections

SCHENECTADY — Mike Saccocio is the longtime public face of the City Mission of Schenectady, as well as a tireless advocate for its clients and energetic leader of its staff.

Through the COVID-19 crisis, he and the Mission and its staff are doing what they’ve always done, but with a degree of anxiety and uncertainty previously unknown. The homeless and recently homeless people it serves are at risk not only of infection during the pandemic but of disruption to their lives in the recession that will likely follow the crisis.

Saccocio, 59, grew up in the Five Corners area of Rotterdam and now lives in Glenville with his wife, Carol. After college, he played two years of mid-level minor league baseball down South for the Montreal Expos system, then worked a year in construction. He earned a master’s degree and in 1986 and started what he thought would be a career in politics as an aide to a young assemblyman representing Schenectady, James Tedisco.

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He also volunteered with the Mission’s youth programs. In 1989, he left Tedisco’s staff to become director of those youth programs.

Aside from a two-year stint as Frank Duci’s deputy mayor in 1992-1994, he’s been at the City Mission ever since, the past 24 years as executive director.

The organization has 100 employees, shelters an average of 100 homeless people each night, operates transitional housing for 30 people who’ve left the shelter, serves 700 meals a day and packs 1,200 weekend meals for schoolchildren each week.

The Mission is still doing all that through the pandemic, with social distancing and other precautions, and Saccocio still makes his rounds each morning, greeting everyone from the appropriate distance.

He spoke to The Gazette in mid-April about his role with the Mission and the effect the pandemic has had on the organization, which opened its doors in 1906.

Q: What led you to the City Mission?

A: I think two things: Faith was part of my formative years, so there was always a desire to want to follow a path that I felt was consistent. There is a great overlap to being in government — you want to help people. You want to try to make things better. I think that’s the essence of what the Mission is: helping people.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: How have the Mission and your role changed in 31 years?

A: We’ve seen the rapid growth of women and children who are homeless. When I first came to the City Mission, it didn’t even have a women’s shelter. So that was one of my first very big projects. Another big change is that the people coming to the Mission are younger. When I first came here it was mainly middle-aged men. So the nature of the work has really changed. People are arriving with far less experience. So we have to help them gain that while still remaining in a stable situation.

Q: Two months into the COVID-19 crisis, what practical impact has the Mission felt?

A: A daily reexamination of protocols, because the learning curve is dynamic, so every day we’re studying the newest requirements, what do we need to do. I’ve never been so focused on: What does our cleaning look like? Are we using the right supplies? How do we continue to do our work and maintain social distancing?

Q: What about the deeper and less visible change?

A: The deeper change is to realize the people who come to work here are taking risks. There’s always risks at a place like this but now the reality is heightened. The people that we serve are in [a] place of greater risk. So my job is to make sure that I’m alongside of them and seen by them.

Q: When you talk about a baseline risk, what do you mean?

A: It’s a place where you have people who can have communicable diseases, you can have hepatitis, you can have TB. Although we’ve been remarkably safe here, the potential for violence — it is the nature [of a shelter], you’re putting 100 people on a campus and every person is in an urgent situation.

MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Mike Saccocio, stops into the Family Life Center to say hello during his morning rounds all at The City Mission of Schenectady.MARC SCHULTZ/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Mike Saccocio, stops into the Family Life Center to say hello during his morning rounds all at The City Mission of Schenectady.

Q: How have you and your administrative team had to change?

A: Developing new ways to have meetings, so Zoom. Three weeks ago I’d never been on a Zoom meeting. Now I can’t imagine a day when I don’t have three or four of them. Really, I’ve come to love it as a technology!

Q: Do you worry about your own health?

A: I think I’m concerned about it in an appropriate way, but that can never be what’s primary. That just has to be understood, that that’s the nature of this work. There is some heightened risk. Like anybody, I need to be smart but I can’t operate out of fear.

Q: You’ve spoken of the homeless being adaptable to crisis, as some of them have lived most of their lives in crisis. What have you seen in this crisis?

A: I’ve seen some people that have underlying health conditions really express deep concerns, how do they stay safe. There are a number of folks who come to us who bring with them physical challenges that are really heightened right now. I think there’s some concerns for the moms and their kids. Their kids can’t go to school. But I still think the prevailing attitude is, “Let’s get through this.”

Q: Do you think the greater test for the Mission and its clients comes after the pandemic peaks, and its full economic fallout becomes known?

A: I wouldn’t necessarily say more, because this is pretty intense, but there are definitely going to be unprecedented challenges ahead.

I’ll give you an example: Our banquet was supposed to be at the end of April. Our annual banquet dinner nets for us $100,000 — it’s our big fundraising event of the year. Obviously we have rescheduled — we’re going to do it at the end of August instead. But you ask, are people still going to go to banquets? Particularly our elderly folks. What I see on the horizon is just a very different climate. Some things that we’ve always relied on as being good, effective ways to generate revenue for the organization may not be viable. Somebody in the organization has to get out six months, be a year down the road. That’s my responsibility, to make sure we’re thinking through what does a different strategy of fundraising look like?

Q: And what does the landscape look like later this year?

A: What we all know is there’s going to be less resources in six months than there were at the start of this year and that has to trickle down into a negative impact for us. The flip side though is, right now we have an opportunity, because we are an essential service, that we can prove value. We can emerge as an organization that people know they can trust, that is now crisis-tested. I see that as a big opportunity for us.

Q: You’ve taken extensive steps to stop the spread of the virus in your facilities. Have they worked?

A: We had a few people who were symptomatic. We got them into a quarantine situation and every one of those individuals has emerged as being better. I don’t know if they had COVID-19 because until this week there was no testing available.

Q: The City Mission is faith-based. Does faith make the long hours and stress easier to bear?

A: It really does. For me personally it makes all the difference. From a faith perspective, it really is quite a privilege to be at risk. There was a great quote I read: “In the kingdom of God, gravity bends toward suffering.” There’s no place I’d rather be. And I really sense that, wow, I get to lead this organization during this season. God’s in control. That doesn’t guarantee us a rosy path, doesn’t make us invulnerable, but it’s still real.

Q: Much of your role in better times has been lifting the spirits of those around you. Do you find yourself working harder at that now?

A: It’s always been an important part of my job and I do feel it’s more so today. I read in a business book recently that a CEO is also the chief reminding officer, and I really like that. It’s never one and done. There’s four things a leader has to do in a crisis: presence, perspective, priorities and perseverance. That’s what a leader has to be every day. I think a crisis like this doesn’t change things, but it heightens them, intensifies them.

Rising to the Challenge: Faces of the COVID-19 crisis in the Capital Region

Q: What else can you tell me?

A: You were asking about the encouraging of people. [This morning when I was making my rounds] I got to tell the ladies who live in

our shelter this: What has been remarkable through this is, you’ll never have to doubt what’s inside of you. If you never knew it before, what you’re showing us right now is you really do have greatness inside you, because you have all risen above the challenge which is here and have been great so far. God has given you that gift and we’re noticing it.

You don’t want to miss the moment, even though we are all praying every day, please let it end fast, let this end quickly. You don’t want to miss what is present in the midst of it.

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