Chris Burg is a man of few words.
“Coffee?” he asks, as with purposeful steps he ushers a reporter into the executive director’s office at the YMCA on lower State Street, a once-stately brick building that 182 men call home.
Burg, a stocky 35-year-old with thinning brown hair and a gold stud glinting in his left ear, recalled how long he has lived at the Y: “A long time.”
He’s seen hard times. His eyes speak eloquently of that, but he struggled to put the past into words.
“My family be mean to me. I had to move out, come here,” he explained.
“Here” is a worn-looking lobby with ornate, dark woodwork and elegant arched entryways that recall more prosperous times; it’s a dining area with round tables where the residents gathered on a recent Wednesday to eat chili-cheese dogs and fries; it’s communal bathrooms and 90-square-foot bedrooms with barely enough room for a twin-size bed, dresser and desk.
It’s a place where men wind up when all other options have been exhausted, but again and again, residents said that the Y is much more than that.
“The Y be nice to me,” Burg explained. “Lou be nice. Ed be nice.”
The Lou he speaks so highly of is Lou Magliocca, executive director of the Schenectady YMCA. Ed is Ed Kowalczyk, director of operations for the residency program.
Magliocca started out as director of the residency program in 2000 and has guided it through many changes. Now he’s preparing to shepherd it through its largest one yet: a relocation to a building on lower Broadway, slated to be ready for occupancy at the end of the year.
The new building will house just 155 residents, so in an effort to downsize, the Y will stop accepting new referrals April 1.
“No one will be homeless,” he assured. “We’ll make sure we have found a place for everybody.”
When Magliocca started his job, there were fewer than 70 men living at the Y, sometimes for a day, sometimes for a week. He described them as transients and the program as missionless.
Things have changed.
Residents, all male, now must be county residents who have a disability, which could include issues with alcohol or drugs. They must also be connected with clinical services within the county. No violent felons or sex offenders are allowed to stay.
“[Residents] can stay with us as long as they stay in good standing, and good standing is no alcohol or drugs, not any trouble in the community; we have a curfew here, and they have to stay med-compliant,” Magliocca explained.
The average length of stay has now stretched to between nine and 10 years. Two or three men move out each month, but with an average of 25 referrals coming in every 30 days or so, there are never enough beds to go around. The residence has been at maximum capacity for about nine years.
Residents pay 30 percent of their income to live at the Y, which adds up to between $340 and $380 a month, Magliocca estimated. That price includes a bedroom, cable TV, heat and bathroom facilities. For an extra $200 a month, three meals a day are offered.
The Y’s 24/7, 365-day-a-year program is staffed by 28 full-time workers and between eight and 10 part-timers whose jobs include running the front desk, working security and serving as case managers.
Case managers monitor residents to make sure they take their medication, manage their finances properly and get to their doctors’ appointments.
“What we do is we bridge the community clinical piece to their stay here, so the plan is really written by the clinician in the community and what our staff case managers do here is carry it out, so if Johnny needs to be drug-tested three times a month, we do that. If there’s a curfew, they need to follow curfew,” Magliocca explained.
The strict program has led to many success stories.
Success is measured in different increments at the Y than it might be in other places — by years out of jail, treatment programs successfully completed, reunions celebrated with family or self-sufficiency returned.
Residents have different takes on how the Y is helping them reach their goals.
At 25, Carl Carpenter is one of the youngest residents. Sandy-haired and boyish-looking, he sports the hint of a beard. This is his second go-round as a resident: This time, he’s been at the Y since November.
As a kid, he was in and out of foster homes and had to grow up fast. He stayed with cousins for a while after coming of age but left because he said they took advantage of him.
The Y feels more like home should, he says.
“Sometimes it’s hard being the younger person here, but I also have a lot of respect from older people because I’m not the troubled teen I was before, and a lot of people have seen me grow,” he said.
Carpenter rides a bus to his part-time job at Sports Zone in Colonie Center and hopes to go to Hudson Valley Community College to earn a degree in sports broadcasting.
But he’s not sure he wants to leave the Y.
“I don’t know if moving out to my own apartment would be the best thing for me because I do get lonely a lot, and in here, I have people to talk to all the time, and out there, I really don’t have no one, so this is probably the best spot for me,” he said. “I definitely see a lot of people here as my brothers — brothers I never had before. They look out for me, I look out for them and it’s more of a mutual respect, and my biggest thing in life is respect.”
At this point in his life, Andre Shingles can laugh when told his life story sounds like a country song, but the 60-year-old with a salt-and-pepper beard and a quick smile still tells his tale with regret in his voice.
“I lost my house on Schuyler Street, my dog died and my wife left, all at the same time,” he recalled. “Once they took the house, I had no type of income coming in, so I went through [the Department of Social Services] and they had me out in the street eight hours a day looking for a job. I didn’t realize at that time that my health problems would start coming down on me.”
No longer able to pound the pavement like before, he found his way to the Y, where he’s been since July.
Living there has taught him humility, he said. “I had a touch of humbleness in me, but now it has multiplied. I’m a more humble person, I’m more understanding to a person. That’s what this place has done for me.”
A self-proclaimed people person, he hopes to get his own place soon and start doing volunteer work with senior citizens.
But for now, he’s content to stay put and save up money.
“I’m very thankful and blessed that I have a roof over my head,” he said.
Mike DeCesare, a sturdy, intense 54-year-old with brown hair and eyes, has been a resident at the Y on and off for about 20 years.
Growing up in the Mont Pleasant section of Schenectady, he was a wrestler. Sometime after high school, he lost his way. Problems with a girlfriend led to homelessness, but he’s found acceptance and encouragement at the Y, he said.
“Ed did so much for my life. He helped me to believe in myself. You need a coach like him, a mentor like him, a friend,” he said.
DeCesare was referring to Kowalczyk, the Y’s director of operations, who helped him to get volunteer positions with Journeymen Wrestling and Shenendehowa’s high school wrestling team.
“If it wasn’t for Ed, I wouldn’t be doing none of that because I had no idea how to write a letter or anything when I first started,” he said. “They let me coach right with the team at Journeymen Wrestling Club and Shenendehowa High School, and I feel at home there and part of the team, just like I do here at the Y.”
DeCesare hopes to attend Schenectady County Community College and earn a teaching degree and coaching certification. He also wants to continue to be part of the Y, he said.
“We’re in a positive environment, in a place where we have a roof over our head, where we can grow and be all we can be. Everybody has that opportunity here. It’s not just a place to live and eat.”
Felipe Cortes, an energetic 48-year-old with close-cropped hair, a smooth voice and an air of confidence, has been living at the Y for a little more than a year.
Previously homeless as a result of what he called “ins and outs with my ex,” he speaks proudly of his two young boys, one who attends Paige Elementary School, the other who lives in the Bronx.
At Christmastime, his family was “adopted” into the Y’s Christmas gift program. Cortes was amazed to find that the generosity extended not just to his son who lives locally but all the way to his son in the Bronx.
“It’s been very rewarding being here, and the staff, they will help you,” he assured.
Cortes aspires to work at General Electric’s battery plant, but in the meantime, he’s keeping busy volunteering at the Y — picking up donations at Freihofer’s and Panera Bread, deejaying for the Christmas party and helping with maintenance work.
“For me being allowed here, I’ve tried to give back as much as I can,” he said.