By Joy Bergmann
The Fortune Society has a message for Upper West Siders with concerns about its new permanent supportive housing program being created at 258 W. 97th Street: Ask us anything.
“We really have the formula for how we show up and succeed,” says Stanley Richards, Deputy CEO of Fortune. “And that’s being transparent, being partners with the community. Listening and being responsive.”
To show their program in action, Fortune invited WSR to tour its Castle Gardens residence at 625 W. 140th Street in West Harlem.
Opened in 2010, the 114-unit building is a living model of what Fortune aims to create on 97th Street: a permanent, affordable, mixed-use, supportive residential development. Its tenants are all low-income New Yorkers. Some are formerly incarcerated individuals.
A nonprofit founded in 1967, Fortune provides comprehensive services to over 9,000 justice-involved individuals each year, offering them the tools and opportunities needed to thrive as contributing members of society. But housing is key to their success. “We can do all the wraparound services, but unless someone has a safe, stable, affordable place to call home, it’s pretty hard to hold a job,” says Richards.
Securing housing in the private sector is often impossible. Rents are climbing and a New York City landlord can legally reject someone with a criminal conviction history. Reuniting with family living in public housing isn’t always an option either. NYCHA permanently excludes tenants convicted of certain offenses. Given all that, many recently released people go straight from prison to a homeless shelter — not an ideal setting for a fresh start. “We have to create legal pathways for people with criminal convictions to access affordable housing,” Richards says.
To see the impact of Fortune’s award-winning work and learn why other housing organizations are replicating its approach, check out this brief video:
WSR arrived early to Castle Gardens’ meticulously maintained brick building and decided to chat up two tenants we spotted outside.
Jerry, 62, spent 24 years in prison, but has lived successfully in his apartment since 2010; 42 incarcerated years left Edwin, 66, bewildered by modern life until three years ago, when Fortune showed him how to succeed. Both bubbled over with gratitude.
“They gave me a different outlook on life,” says Edwin. “I’m a part of society now. Everyone wants a sense of pride and dignity. We have that here.”
“We bring something to the community, not just take from it,” says Jerry, noting how the building serves as a Harlem community meeting space [for Community Board 9, among others], a polling place, a summer cooling center and a weekly fresh produce pick-up spot for locals facing food insecurity. “We’re here to help build something up.”
The men asked Upper West Siders to be open to their incoming neighbors. “Everybody needs a helping hand sometimes. The pandemic has proved that,” says Edwin.
“Make sure they know that, to live here, we have to show we can handle our business and be responsible,” adds Jerry. “Case managers walk us through every step of the way. We’re all works in progress, but we are breaking the cycle.”
Upon entering Castle Gardens, WSR was greeted by Patrick, one of its residential aides who monitor the premises 24/7 — staying apprised of tenants’ well-being while checking the building’s 64 security cameras.
Like many Fortune Society employees [including Stanley Richards], Patrick has a criminal justice history and came to Fortune as a program participant. With two years on the job, he now has his own off-premises apartment. “I love it here, interacting with residents, everything.”
Sherry Goldstein, Fortune’s VP of Operations and a 35-year resident of West 94th Street on the UWS, says the new 97th Street residence — which will be called Castle IV — will have equivalent security. “It will be staffed 24/7 and case managers will be on site, usually from 8am to 8pm, Mondays through Saturdays.”
The most important thing to know: Castle IV is not a shelter. Like Castle Gardens, it’s an apartment building. Tenants may stay forever as long as they adhere to their lease provisions [including paying rent] and abide by Fortune’s rules including “no violence.” If someone violates that trust, Fortune says they work to address the issue by offering appropriate services. If the behavior doesn’t change, they proceed with actions up to and including eviction.
Of Castle IV’s 82 units, 15 will be available to current residents who lived in the SRO during its “illegal hotel” days, and will include a live-in super; 9 units will house low-income folks who win spots through a NYC Connects lottery; 58 rooms will be occupied by Fortune tenants who are currently living in homeless shelters. “No one’s coming fresh from the penitentiary. These will be current Fortune participants – single men and women – who’ve shown they are ready for permanent housing,” says Goldstein.
Fortune understands why skeptical UWS residents might not be jumping for joy at their arrival, given past problems with other housing initiatives.
“We don’t want to discount the very harmful and intense experience the community has undergone. It was real,” says Richards. “We want to appreciate their experience and really articulate who we are and let them judge us on who we’ve always been.”
One thing Fortune has always been rigorous about is tenant screening.
Who will NOT be eligible to live at Castle IV? People with:
- Arson convictions
- Methamphetamine production on rental housing premises convictions
- Level 2 or 3 sex offender designation; any child molestation convictions
- Assessed current risk of violence
- Assessed need for more services than the housing model provides
“Anyone assessed as posing a current risk of danger to themselves or the community will be excluded,” says Richards, noting that a team of case managers and clinicians evaluates each candidate’s unique challenges and strengths. “We want stable tenants who know Fortune already.”
So, could someone with a murder conviction live at Castle IV?
“Yes. We have people living here who came out of prison after 48 years for a murder they did when they were 16 years old. The likelihood of them doing it now is zero,” says Goldstein.
People with mental health or substance abuse issues will have supportive services to keep their progress on track. Those requiring high levels of care in these areas will not be eligible for Castle IV.
Everyone who enters Fortune’s ecosystem has access to its programming promoting work readiness, educational attainment, psychological and physical well-being, and social engagement. In addition to on-site case managers, tenants at Castle IV will have easy access to Fortune’s classes and support teams in Harlem and Long Island City.
Community building and fun are also part of the mix.
“We have very talented tenants, so Music Cafe nights are very popular,” says Goldstein. As is Castle Gardens’ giant Halloween party attended by hundreds of local families. Tenants also regularly volunteer at local churches and synagogues; Fortune expects the same will happen on the UWS. “I spoke with Pastor Miller at the church on 93rd and Broadway this morning. They do so many good things for the community. We’re going to encourage our folks to get involved in that.”
Walking through Castle Gardens’ spotless hallways, stairwells, library, solarium, computer lab, community spaces, refuse rooms, laundry room and garden roof deck – each floor adopts its own planter – there was no indication that this apartment building is different from any other. Except perhaps quieter and better kept, a testament to the residents and Geewan, the super, who is raising his two kids here as a single dad. “We enjoy the opportunity to learn from all kinds of people,” he says.
The affection tenants have for staff and each other was palpable. A woman in a wheelchair scooted right up to Richards for a lobby hug; another tenant heard his deep voice and poked her head out of her apartment to embrace him. “When you treat people like they matter, they show up like they matter,” says Richards. “It’s about showing the love that’s in our hearts.”
Fortune Society intends to show the UWS that love as Castle IV moves forward with necessary renovations and program preparations.
“Nobody’s moving in for at least a year, so we have plenty of time to get to know each other and answer everyone’s questions,” says Goldstein.
People should expect to see the Fortune team around a lot. Not just in the coming months, but for the lifetime of the project. “We’ve been attending Community Board 9, Riverside Park and local NYPD precinct meetings for 22 years now,” says Richards. “We will do the same on the Upper West Side.”
Indeed, next Monday, February 28th, Fortune will present at CB7’s Housing Committee Zoom meeting at 6:30 p.m. To attend, register here.
Fortune will also attend the next 24th Precinct Community Council meeting on Wednesday, March 16th, at 7:00 p.m. at the Bloomingdale Library, 150 W. 100th Street.
“We’ll meet with anyone who wants to learn more,” says Goldstein. “We’re going to offer everybody a tour here to see what we’ve done.” [More on that in the coming days.]
The team is even open to answering questions right here in WSR’s comments, as appropriate.
Such candor and transparency, they believe, will lead to fulfilling a vision of success on 97th Street.
“Picture this,” says Richards. “People have moved in. They have been welcomed. They’re participating in the community, becoming part of its very fabric, its diversity, its strength. They’re volunteering. They’re adding value. They are going about living their lives and have a place they can call home for as long as they want.”