SCHENECTADY — COVID-19 has been both a challenge and a catalyst for change at the City Mission of Schenectady.
As year two of the pandemic draws to a close, Mission staff are looking back with pride at COVID-spurred initiatives and have their sights set on future potential.
Since its establishment 116 years ago, City Mission has grown from a homeless shelter to a holistic effort to attend to needs well beyond the most basic. The organization offers programs that empower employment, assist with addiction recovery and teach sustainable life practices.
The Mission has remained open throughout the pandemic. Since COVID’s onset, staff have observed and responded to an increase and evolution in need.
Unlike many nonprofits, the Mission, which employs between 85 and 90 individuals, is not presently burdened with a staff retention problem. It is also not experiencing a funding deficit. That good fortune has allowed leadership to advance new programs.
FOCUS ON WELLNESS
A health and wellness initiative shifted into high gear when it became clear the pandemic was compounding Mission residents’ mental and physical health challenges.
On New Year’s Day, the organization opened a wellness center on Lafayette Street that includes a fitness center, 10 transitional housing units and offices that offer mental health services.
“People can come and meet an array of professionals who can help guide them through their current struggle to a place of greater stability,” explained Mike Saccocio, City Mission’s executive director.
Guy Waltman is the fitness, health and well-being coach at the Mission’s new Leon Fitness Center. He described the facility as a “full-scale luxury fitness center,” where Mission residents can participate in personal training sessions, group fitness classes and open gym activities.
The concept for the fitness initiative evolved from a one-day-a-week pilot program Waltman launched in conjunction with the Mission six years ago. Its objective was to prove a fitness program would be of interest to those the Mission serves, and that positive results could be obtained from exercise, even when an individual was living in crisis.
Positive results have been achieved since the pilot’s inception, Waltman said, including weight loss, enhanced mobility, positive relationships and a greater sense of well-being.
“Even if you are living in crisis, health and fitness can still be a priority for you, and furthermore, it really ought to be,” he said. “My goal is for the City Mission of Schenectady to, objectively speaking, be the healthiest shelter in the U.S.”
NEW MENTAL HEALTH RESOURCES
The pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles for many individuals, with isolation policies often eliminating access to traditional coping resources.
“We saw that problem getting worse and really felt that we had to create our own internal resource to try to address that, because it was coming to our door increasingly and there was no other place for people to go, especially in the early days of the pandemic when a lot was closed,” said Saccocio.
Mental health services are now available in the new health and wellness building. Mission staff offer spiritual counseling, while outside agencies partner with the nonprofit to provide formal mental health counseling.
The Mission’s new mental and physical health initiatives are making a difference, said Kermit McMullen, City Mission’s men’s center supervisor. The men’s center provides dormitory housing for homeless men.
A 2014 City Mission program graduate, McMullen said the Mission’s programs helped him beat substance abuse, mend relationships and get his life on track.
Mental health services were challenging to obtain in Schenectady County before the Mission began its health and wellness initiative, he noted.
“Now we have a building for that and schedule appointments regularly to assist individuals that are in need of mental health services,” he said.
FOCUS ON NUTRITION
Last February, in partnership with SEFCU, the Mission obtained a hydroponic freight farm, which has enabled the nonprofit to offer access to fresh produce year-round. The self-contained growing facility, housed in what looks like a 40-foot shipping container, produces between 500 and 550 heads of lettuce per week, along with a variety of root vegetables and herbs. The produce is incorporated into meals served by the Mission, donated to other nonprofits and offered free of charge to the public through a new community farm stand program.
In-house community meals have been suspended during the pandemic and replaced with takeout ones, approximately 500 of which are distributed daily, Monday through Saturday. The farm stand program was created in response to the shift to takeout.
“In wintertime people couldn’t walk down to us, simply get a meal and start walking back home. We needed to create a warm-up situation, as well as a resting situation. Knowing that we still couldn’t congregate a lot of people in a small space, we actually developed the whole farm stand program based on how to keep people warm when they come to us in wintertime and add value to a meal that was inherently diminished because we weren’t able to sit around tables together,” explained Saccocio.
When people come to pick up a meal they can shop for free, fresh, freight farm produce at the Mission’s farm stand, located in the dining center.
The freight farm program will expand in 2022 to include internships, during which participants will learn the hydroponic growing process.
“A big part of what we’re trying to incorporate is learning how to choose healthy options to eat and that whole wellness aspect,” noted Elsa Bohl, the Mission’s freight farm agriculture coordinator. “You can learn so much about your health and food, and how to manage something, and have an appreciation for growing something.”
WEATHERING COVID, CODE BLUE
Saccocio said the organization’s largest challenge at present is balancing COVID and Code Blue.
When a Code Blue is declared, Schenectady County’s homeless shelters extend their hours of operation so that individuals in need of shelter can stay indoors during harsh winter weather. City Mission is the county’s primary Code Blue shelter.
Last winter, the number of men, women and children who sought shelter at the Mission averaged about 75 per night — lower than usual, likely due to COVID fears and a moratorium on rental evictions, Saccocio said. This winter, numbers have risen to pre-COVID levels, about 100 per night.
“What makes it challenging is that COVID is still a reality, and on some nights, particularly in the men’s shelter, which is more congregate in nature, the way you deal with freezing cold weather is the opposite of how you deal with COVID. You deal with cold weather by bringing people in, packing them into a room if necessary, but it’s warm and everybody’s safe. That’s the opposite of how you deal with COVID,” Saccocio explained.
Lacking good alternatives, Saccocio said staff have lately been leaning toward keeping everyone inside.
“When you’re below zero, you just err on the side of, you’ve just got to keep as many people in the building as we can,” he said.
The Mission is helping to mitigate COVID’s spread through testing and by holding weekly vaccination clinics.
Keeping people safe from the elements and from COVID is a team effort, Saccocio noted.
“The county has been a great partner and so have other agencies,” he said. “City Mission is not an island in this. We are part of a community-wide continuum.”
In addition to ensuring that long-standing programs meet community needs, Saccocio said the focus for 2022 is twofold: to deepen the roots of the new mental and physical wellness program, and to ensure a robust transitional housing program.
“We really feel here that we’re trying to make history, trying to prove that you can structure a sustainable resource base that helps people thrive and flourish over the long term, in the midst of great struggles that they’re facing and barriers that they have to overcome,” Saccocio said.
Everything the organization has accomplished is testimony to a generous community, he pointed out.
“I think it’s a really inspiring testimony that we live in a really good community, where people are facing their own challenges and they keep thinking about their neighbors, and the Mission is the beneficiary of that.”
Demand increases as COVID persists
City Mission service
Winter 2020-2021 Winter 2012-2022*
Winter coats About 1,000, Nov.-March About 1,000 so far
People seeking shelter nightly About 75 About 100
Weekend backpack food distribution About 600/week About 900/week
*As of Jan. 20