ArchCare transforms church buildings into apartments for adults with autism

December Online

By JULIE MINDA
Dec. 2, 2020

For more than six years, New York City-based ArchCare has been working with its sponsor, the Archdiocese of New York, to identify shuttered archdiocesan properties to put to use as residential units for vulnerable populations. This year the long-term care system opened the first such renovation.

What had been a convent adjacent to Staten Island's Church of St. Teresa of the Infant Jesus now is ArchCare at St. Teresa, a 10-unit apartment complex primarily for low-needs adults with autism. The renovation is serving as a model for residential conversions in other New York parishes.

"This is an incredibly satisfying project, and this complex is a special place for all of us at ArchCare," ArchCare President and Chief Executive Scott LaRue says. "With the right support and the right community, people from vulnerable populations can live independently."

Properties in disuse
The property conversions are connected with a restructuring project called Making All Things New that the archdiocese began around 2010. As part of that effort, the archdiocese is looking at how to use its resources more strategically, including convents, rectories and other properties in disuse. In 2014, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan, archbishop of New York, asked ArchCare to review a list of the shuttered properties to determine how some could be repurposed and put into service for vulnerable populations.

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Vincent Mazzone enjoys fiesta night at ArchCare at St. Teresa, a newly renovated apartment complex on Staten Island that serves people with autism. Mazzone is one of the tenants of St. Teresa.

An ArchCare assessment identified three groups in great need of residential options: high-functioning adults with autism, low-income elderly and people transitioning out of inpatient substance abuse treatment. ArchCare's current focus is on people with autism.

ArchCare at St. Teresa opened Jan. 1. A nearly identical project is now underway in Tuckahoe in New York's Westchester County. ArchCare is converting a convent at the Immaculate Conception parish into a 10-unit apartment complex it will call ArchCare's St. Frances Cabrini Apartments at Immaculate Conception Church. LaRue says it will open in the summer.

ArchCare is relying entirely on grant funding for the renovation work.

Addressing a gap
ArchCare at St. Teresa is adjacent to the parish church. In addition to the single-occupancy, fully furnished apartments, the complex has a lounge, teaching kitchen, dining room, game room and laundry room. Some features of the convent remain, including a wall of stained glass.

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Mazzone, at left, other tenants and their families and friends cleaned up the St. Teresa property and planted shrubbery earlier this year, as part of the work of a garden club the tenants had formed.

Donna Maxon is ArchCare independent housing managing agent. She says the complex has prioritized eight apartments for people with autism. Neurotypical people also live at the complex. Men and women aged 21 and over can apply to live in the apartments. A coordinator who lives on site assists with organizing presentations, activities and events for all of the tenants.

The tenants are on a yearly, renewable lease – all 10 tenants arrived in January and all have chosen to renew for 2021. ArchCare is their landlord. All tenants with a disability receive a full or partial subsidy for their rent payments through a waiver from the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities.

Maxon says the complex answers many needs. People with autism and other developmental disabilities normally lose access to supportive services when they reach 21, and it is difficult for them to find independent housing. Maxon says there are long waiting lists for institutional housing in New York, and it can be difficult to find landlords of noninstitutional housing who accept government subsidy payments. ArchCare both accepts such payments and helps its tenants connect with social services.

'Mayor' of St. Teresa
When reviewing tenancy applications last year, ArchCare selected residents of Staten Island who exhibited an enthusiasm for social engagement.

Vincent Mazzone, 28, certainly fits the bill. Since moving into his St. Teresa apartment, he has been a regular at the complex's game nights, movie nights, restaurant nights and church club. He's enjoyed getting involved with St. Teresa parish life. He's taken to cooking with and for his fellow tenants. And he says he generally just enjoys socializing with others in the complex any time he can.

Maxon calls him "the mayor" because of how well he gets along with everyone and how involved he is in the community.

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Maxon

Prior to moving to the apartment, Mazzone lived with his parents and siblings in South Beach Park on Staten Island. His mother, Mildred Mazzone, says she and her husband had wanted to give Vincent – who has autism — more independence by helping him find housing, but there seemed to be no good options.

She learned of ArchCare at St. Teresa from her mother who saw information about it in a church bulletin at St. Joseph's in Staten Island. "I couldn't believe our good fortune," Mildred Mazzone says. "I really feel that God intervened in this."

The pandemic derailed tenants' outings, gatherings and events from mid-March through August. Even so, most tenants chose to stay in their apartments rather than returning to their parents' homes during the height of the pandemic.

At the July meeting of the tenant council, held via Zoom, tenants agreed to safety guidelines that allowed limited gatherings to resume in a safe way.

All tenants participate in the council, and their families take part in a separate council, to make recommendations and share feedback with ArchCare.

Mildred Mazzone says, "What they are creating is a great community of families and friendships." She says she is proud of the independence her son is showing – cooking and cleaning his own apartment, being active in the community, preparing to one day work as a cartoonist.

Vincent Mazzone calls his new independence "an adventure."

Maxon calls ArchCare at St. Teresa a "win-win-win." The tenants are winning because most cannot make the leap to greater independence without supportive and welcoming environments. The parents are winning because they see their children thriving in the environment. And the church is winning because it is fulfilling its mission of helping vulnerable people while also making effective use of dormant property.

ArchCare head LaRue agrees, "You really couldn't have written up a better plan for what ended up happening. There's every possible synergy happening there."

 

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