SCHENECTADY — The City Mission of Schenectady is building more housing to help more people rebuild their lives.
The eight new units rising at the corner of Smith and Lafayette streets near downtown Schenectady will join 24 existing units of transitional housing next to the Mission’s complex of office, dining, residential and worship space.
With the simultaneous renovation of a newly acquired duplex townhouse on site, the Mission will soon be renting 34 apartments to Mission residents who’ve made enough progress that they can live on their own.
About 80 people have occupied the existing units in the eight years they’ve been available. They live as independently as they want to but have as much help as they need right across the street.
The project is being constructed by Mission Builders, which actually has no connection to the City Mission except that its principal, local housing developer John Hodorowski, chose its name to show support. The City Mission’s only direct role in the project is to raise funds for the $1.2 million cost of construction. Michael Saccocio will lead that effort.
The Schenectady native and Union College graduate was briefly deputy mayor of the city in his early 30s but has worked for the City Mission the last 26 years, 23 of them as executive director.
Saccocio is visibly passionate about heading the faith-based safety net organization that sits just south of the bright lights of downtown State Street. As he walked The Daily Gazette through the noisy construction site Thursday, he paused to exchange greetings or hugs with nearly everyone who crossed paths with him, most on a first-name basis.
The transitional housing program is something he’s particularly excited about.
“What for us is critical is it’s beyond affordable housing,” Saccocio said. “What it really is, is giving people access to a network of support as they’re starting jobs, that they can gain enough resources to be stable in the long term.”
The residents are single adults and single parents with children, formerly homeless and overcoming any of a host of problems that led them to be homeless.
“It could be domestic violence,” Saccocio said. “It could be addiction and all the lost things that come with that.”
Or it could just be chronic poverty, magnified by bad luck or poor choices.
The Mission is still known for the potentially life-saving safety-net services it has provided since 1906: hot meals and a bed for those who want or need one. It served 237,404 meals and provided 35,917 nights of lodging in 2018.
But it also offers residents ways to work through many of the other problems they carry with them when they arrive at the Mission.
The residents of the transitional housing are graduates of Bridges to Freedom, the Mission’s long-term life skills-building program. And while they're living in the transitional housing, they’re required to take money management classes and hold jobs so that they may be able to graduate to outside housing in a couple of years.
Learning money management has been critical for John DeMaranville, 42, who became a Mission resident after years of rotating between family members’ homes.
“I had a very bad problem with budgeting money,” the East Greenbush native said. “I used to go to the bank, I took out more than I needed. Now I don’t even carry money, I just use my debit card — I’m not spending more than I need.”
In short order in 2015, DeMaranville graduated from Bridges, got a job down the hill at Villa Italia bakery/cafe, and moved into the transitional housing.
He plans to remain connected indefinitely to the Mission, which he considers an extended family, and Villa Italia, where he does everything from washing dishes to hacking paths through the curbside snowbanks in winter.
“These people have done a ton for me. I can’t leave this place,” he said, adding that it’s a two-way street: “They wouldn’t be able to function without me — I’m the backbone of this place.”
DeMaranville said he particularly appreciates co-owner Bobby Mallozzi’s help with getting his life back on track: “He got me my license for Christmas — he paid for the road test, the lessons.”
The next month, he bought himself a car.
Pam McAfee’s problems also came down to money: Not enough money and not enough skills to manage what money she did have.
The Georgia native moved to Schenectady with her three young children to escape domestic abuse and be near a relative but became homeless when she couldn’t find an apartment that was both up to code and affordable for her.
After a period living at the Mission, she has been living in the transitional housing since February.
“Being here at the Mission is being with your family,” McAfee said. “It’s a safe feeling. … This place gave me a second chance at life, gave my children a chance at life, because they were so young. This is our foundation, spiritually, emotionally, financially.”
It will, she hopes, help prevent a pattern of generational poverty from developing. She started life in a middle class home but that devolved to poverty after her parents split up. Her own children have known poverty but now have a home and are enrolled in Schenectady schools. They’re even getting a chance at life experiences such sleepaway camp, where they spent this past week.
INSPIRING BY EXAMPLE
MacAfee is also among the large percentage of City Mission employees — as much as one-third at times — who formerly were residents.
“They’re game changers because they’re so willing to share their experience,” Saccocio said. “There’s a saying here I like: ‘My mess is my message.’
“And I think that can be true for all of us: ‘I don’t have to live in shame of these struggles I’ve had, I can use them as a way to help somebody else who’s going through it.’”
McAfee, who works as a residential advocate and ministry associate, said: “I always share my story with [new residents] in the first initial interview — ‘I’m a graduate — I was here for 15 months and I did it with three kids.’”
Saccocio said that’s another reason the City Mission likes having the transitional housing nearby:
“One of the advantages to the Mission having the housing right here on our block is we get a lot of role models. That’s a huge advantage to us — on our block there are stories of men and women overcoming homelessness and getting back on their feet and having what we call a future story.”
Saccocio recalls making a more practical point to city planners while pitching the Mission’s plan for transitional housing: The new development going on downtown doesn’t include housing for the low-wage portion of the expanding workforce.
“The folks we serve are absolutely capable people, and they can get jobs, but they’re probably not going to get jobs that are at a living wage when they first come out” of City Mission programs, he said. “They can develop into it. But if they’re not making a living wage, where are they going?”