Programs founded by priests help men rebuild their lives

by Connie Berry
SUN editor

Philadelphia may be the city of brotherly love but Syracuse has a growing reputation as the city for recovery. There is a steady stream of people who arrive from places like New Jersey or New York City looking for their first, second or maybe even fifth chance to rebuild their lives.

Unlike the Bronx or Brooklyn, Syracuse, they say, has a “laid back” atmosphere and plenty of programs to help keep them clean and sober.

Two priests — one from the Syracuse Diocese and one from the Albany Diocese — have had a lot to do with their sense of hope and a second chance. Father Ray McVey founded Unity Acres, a home for homeless men located in the Northern Region of the diocese, more than 40 years ago. For years homeless men all over the state and beyond have known there’s a safe place for them to find respite and live substance free. Father McVey’s philosophy was simple: the men can stay a day or a lifetime. He died in 1995 leaving behind a legacy and Unity Acres.

Father Peter Young’s passion for helping the downtrodden, the people who are written off as drug addicts and drunks, began when he was a young priest working as a prison chaplain in the 1950s. He eventually created a program, Peter Young Housing, Industry and Treatment Program (PYHIT), that combines treatment, housing and job training so that those incarcerated can re-enter society and become taxpayers. The statistics show that at least 70 percent of people who are incarcerated go to prison because of crimes stemming from their addictions.

Father Young fought for legislation in the 1960s that related to the emergency admission and care of intoxicated persons. He developed the first alcohol and substance abuse treatment program within the New York State Department of Corrections. Today, because of Father Young’s passion for the men and women who get themselves caught up in the cyclical desperation of addiction, there are 118 facilities helping more than 3,500 people across the state from Brooklyn to Buffalo.

“Our purpose is to get them from homelessness to recovery, out of the criminal justice system so that they can become a taxpayer by training them for jobs in industry,” Father Young explained during a recent trip to Syracuse to check on programs here.

His reason for doing what he does is uncomplicated.

“I’m a priest. I wear a collar and I’m a do-gooder. I think a priest has a responsibility to work in the beatitudes,” he said.

The two programs — Unity Acres and PYHIT — have a natural affinity and on Thursday, April 22, Father Young will be the keynote speaker at a Unity Acres fundraiser held at Le Moyne Manor in Liverpool, one of Father Young’s program sites.

Frank Woolever, a former priest, a counselor and a long-time supporter of Unity Acres, heard of Father Young’s work and invited him to Syracuse in the 1990s to see what he might do to help with the re-entry of the incarcerated. It was Woolever’s idea to ask Father Young to speak at the fundraiser for Unity Acres.

Father Young and Father McVey heard of each other through the grapevine sustained by the homeless and addicted. Men would often travel up to Unity Acres from the Albany area.

“Ray McVey was a very close friend of mine,” Father Young said. “We were doing the same things. A guy would spend summers up there with Ray and winters down in Albany with me. We knew a lot about each other through the grapevine between homeless people. We swapped a lot of stories.”

The stories are incredible. One of Father Young’s programs, the Jericho Project, is located in Syracuse at the Stone Court Apartments on the city’s west side. The Jericho Project houses close to 30 men who are in recovery. The program is more than 10 years old and still helping men realize their potential.

Mike Smith came to Syracuse via Jersey City. He’s 49 years old and his addiction left him “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

“I came up here to get myself together,” Smith said. “I always wanted to come up and try the program but I was skeptical. A lot of things have changed since I got here. I’ve been here two years and I plan on living up here.”

Smith was living at the Rescue Mission while he waited for an opening at the Jericho Project. There is a waiting list to get into the program. The current residence director Dennis Collins said that it was Smith’s determination and perseverance that got him into the program. A lot of men make the first call to ask about the program but Smith called and showed up repeatedly to ask when an opening might come up.

“You have to have it in your mind that you want to get clean. You can say you want to, but you have to show me. Every time I turned around Mike was standing there,” Collins said.

Smith has been living in the apartment complex for a few months now and he said things are going pretty well.

“Everything’s great as long as I stay on my right path. You gotta really have focus and you got to stay connected with your sponsor and network. I want to get my GED, that’s one of my goals,” Smith said. “And I want a job.”

Collins explained that the Jericho program is a drug and alcohol free residential community that provides housing for men 18 years old and up.

“They have to be clean for 30 days and they have to have an aftercare program in place. They have to go to meetings every day for 90 days. We offer case management helping them to follow through on their program,” Collins said.

Once the men complete the program at Jericho, which can last more than a year or two, they can move on to another residential community within the program.

At Jericho, furniture is provided and there is a nominal monthly cost. When the men take the next step to another residential program, their housing is set up for them but they have to come up with their own furniture and household goods. They will pay their utilities and gain back more of their independence and even more of their dignity.

Tony Brayboy was born and raised in Brooklyn and Queens. His cousin lived in Syracuse and knew how bad the drugs were in the city. Brayboy moved up to stay with his cousin approximately 18 years ago. One of the reasons he came to Syracuse was because the drug prices were higher than what he paid in Brooklyn. He thought the high price might be a deterent. It wasn’t.

“You might say you won’t pay it,” Brayboy said, “but you pay it.”

Brayboy said he stayed with his cousin, got on Public Assistance (PA) and continued “drinking and drugging.” He finished a couple of rehabilitation programs.

“I got out, got my weight, went right back out on the block and did the same thing,” Brayboy said.

“You can leave Brooklyn and go to Timbuktu,” Collins said, “but it doesn’t matter. You have to DO something different. It’s extremely hard. Those people on the street aren’t your friends.”

Brayboy mused, “That’s right. Wherever you go, you take yourself with you.”

In New York City, Brayboy said, drugs are available every 50 feet or so. But, he said, there are drugs in every city. “You know which side of town to go to by word of mouth,” Brayboy said.

These days though, Brayboy is living on his own at the Fabius Street site of Father Young’s program. He’s been there for four months and still comes back regularly to Jericho because the relationships he built there are what sustains him.

“Jericho, for me, is a place where they can help me keep from being the wolfman, the crackhead, to being a member of society. They help me get my priorities straight,” Brayboy said
. “They help me stay away from the people I need to stay away from. They help me to get a job, to like my job. They get me to pay my rent and my bills. They help me become the man I have always wanted to be. A respectable man.”

To keep himself in line, Brayboy looks back to the days when wearing underwear and taking a bath were a luxury for him.

“If I forget when I was sleeping on a park bench I’m in trouble,” Brayboy said. “If you forget your story you’re doomed.”

Nate Bell has been in Syracuse since he left Harlem in 1999. He really began his search to become substance free after his mother died. While she was dying she told Bell she wanted him to get his “act together.” He has been through several rehabilitation programs including one run by the Franciscans in Graymoor, N.Y.

“I heard Syracuse was a good recovery town,” Bell said. “I know if I slip I’m going to jail. I got tired of going to jail for drugs, eating out of garbage cans. I’m tired of it.”

Bell stayed at the Salvation Army on Erie Boulevard before coming to the Jericho Project. He’s been clean for five years. Currently he is assistant resident manager at the Jericho Project.

Collins finds Bell’’s assistance extremely valuable. Bell knows the program and he knows how to talk to the men in recovery because he’s been there, and even more important right now, he doesn’t want to go back.

“I know every time I get high I go to jail,” Bell said. “I don’t want to go back that route where you don’t make your own decisions. You have to eat when they tell you to eat. Sleep when they tell you to sleep. A lot of people don’t get the chance to come back. They die.”

Brayboy said his relationships with Bell and Collins help him keep himself together. “I know if I mess up one of them is going to be right there,” he said.

Collins’ job is a 24-7 responsibility. He and Bell live on site and their doors are open to the other men every minute of every hour because they have to be.

“They go through this program and we show them what it’s about,” Collins said. “It’s about caring for your brother. You are your brother’s keeper. They’re going to listen to me because they know I care about them. They know if they mess up, I’m going to let them know about it. It’s about the relationships they build. It’s about knowing someone you can pick up and call any time of day and know that person isn’t going to say, ‘Aw, I’m tired. I can’t really talk to you right now.’“

Bell agreed with Collins saying that he doesn’t waste time with people who are users.

“If you don’t stand for what I stand for, we got nothing in common,” Bell said.

Bell often visits Collins’ mother’s house for Sunday dinner. The two men have gotten to know each other well over the past several months.

Brayboy lived near Collins and they’ve known each other for many years. Collins worked at the Rescue Mission for 12 years in the 1980s and 90s and then moved to Georgia. He moved back to Syracuse last year and started working part time at Le Moyne Manor and the next thing he knew, he was back working with men in recovery on a full-time basis. Collins loves the work.

“It’s my passion,” he said.

There are more than 600 people in Onondaga County being helped by Father Young’s programs. The Jericho Project is one of them and Le Moyne Manor serves as a training center for the hospitality industry. Father Young admits that Le Moyne Manor has struggled here and he is determined to find another program that will work. He said the local economy is not geared to that particular industry so his organization is going to try a new project.

Plans are underway to begin a new green technology program in the Syracuse area. Members of Father Young’s local programs will begin training on how to work on green construction projects. They hope to open a green store where people can find products for sustainable, ecologically-sound living.

Mike Bennett will head up Father Young’s newest program here and he said the hope is to open a retail/service facility.

“We’ll be geared toward energy efficient service — lighting, solar panels — that kind of thing,” Bennett said.

They are looking for a piece of property to start up the project. The best case scenario would be to find a multi-use building that could be donated.

Father Young wants to provide training for the people in Onondaga County so that they can stay here with their support system after they make it through recovery.

“I see recovery happen. I see people pull themselves together,” Father Young said. “What am I here for? I am here to help people. That’s what a priest is supposed to do isn’t it? That’s what you do isn’t it? That’s what we’re all supposed to do.”

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