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People experiencing homelessness and mental illness find a place to call their own at St. Francis Friends of the Poor

St. Francis offers place to call home for people with mental illness
St. Francis offers place to call home for people with mental illness 07:24

NEW YORK -- CBS New York is committed to breaking the stigma around mental health, and November is Homelessness Awareness Month.

Most of the time, we hear about the problems trying to get people off the street and into shelters or temporary housing. But today, we focus on a special place in Manhattan, where those who need it most have found a permanent place to call home. 

CBS New York's Cindy Hsu takes us inside St. Francis Friends of the Poor in Chelsea to learn more. It opened in the early 1980s as the very first permanent supportive housing for a specific population that's often overlooked. 

"In order to live here, people need to both have a serious mental illness and also have a long history of homelessness," Executive Director Christina Byrne told Hsu. 

Konti Zinn suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and had been homeless for six years. 

"I was living in the street, sleeping on the train," he said. 

Zinn's mother died when he was 8 years old, so he went to live with relatives but started suffering from mental illness that went undiagnosed for years.

"I went to college, three semesters... South Carolina State College, I was on the honor roll my first two semesters," he said. "[Then] I started getting sick again."

Bryne said mental illness can strike anyone at any time. Tenants at St. Francis have been nurses, stockbrokers and computer scientists. 

"Many of our tenants who lived lives much like you and I," she told Hsu. "Went to school, graduated, got jobs, had families, you know mid-career, and then all of sudden in their 20s they start experiencing the symptoms of severe mental illness. By the time they get to us, they've had years and years of trying to figure out what's going on and losing so much in their life."

St. Francis is home to 255 tenants in three different buildings in Chelsea and the Flatiron District. They have nurses on-site five days a week, along with case managers, psychiatrists and medical practitioners three days a week.

They serve breakfast and dinner for a very small fee. The day Hsu visited, the menu was turkey, beans and rice, salad and soup.

Tenants who want to work, are given jobs with nominal pay, from serving in the dining hall to taking other tenants to their doctor's appointments. There are lots of activities, from art and music to an annual trip to Bear Mountain. 

"Bear Mountain is very lovely to me. I love the leaves, it's so colorful. The lake, I love water, it's so beautiful. And the food is interesting," said tenant Iselande Manigat, who has lived there for three years and said it's the independence and privacy she loves most. 

"This is independent living, so folks have a key to their own room, they can come and go as they please. There's no rules about that, other than like anyone else we help to encourage people to live respectfully amongst others," Byrne said. "This is no different than any other apartment building that any of us live in in New York City."

Jean Monahan has lived there for more than 50 years -- even before St. Francis started when the building was a hotel, which she remembered being incredibly dangerous. Now, she feels safe. 

"I just love this room, I really love it," she said. "They're wonderful people, I have to say that, they're great." 

The staff do all they can to get their tenants together, to engage and building community with each other, and no one turns their back when things don't go as planned.

"Even when they are not their best selves, even when they're having a hard time, that we've got their back. This is their home, they're always going to be able to come back here," said Byrne. "In the community, when they would have a hard time, people would call the police, people would call the hospital - 'Get this person out of here, they're scaring us.' And here, instead of running away, we run toward you. 'How can we help you? What can we do to support you?'"

Zinn has lived there for eight years and said knowing he can stay there forever makes all the difference, especially when he's surrounded by people who have become like family. 

"I made a lot of friends, made a lot of friends here," he said.

"What it's like to kind of have your own place?" Hsu asked. 

"Wow," he replied with a laugh. "It's like heaven."

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