When Mario was a hard-working family man more than 20 years ago, he looked down on the homeless.
Then he became one of them.
Mario is a tall, imposing 55-year-old who recently moved into his own apartment in Jersey City. That may not be anything special unless you consider that he has spent more than 20 years homeless on the streets and in shelters in both New York and in Hudson County.
Until early last month, his home was the PERC Shelter on 36th Street in Union City.
Now, Mario resides in a one-bedroom apartment on the west side of Jersey City – all by himself.
Mario is the first of 23 people from the PERC shelter who will be placed this year in permanent housing at scattered sites across Hudson County. They will all get support services from the aforementioned organizations.
Mario said he was relieved last week.
“A lot of people can’t comprehend what it’s like to sleep with a group of 56 grown men who are snoring and smelling,” Mario said. “Now, I can watch any TV channel I want, and I don’t have to wait to use the bathroom to take a shower.”
The story of Mario
Mario is a man of many skills and tastes.
He is a cook at the PERC Shelter, often preparing dinner for his homeless compadres. He also has his CDL B license to drive commercial trucks, and a food management license, both from the state of New York. But he said he has a criminal record that impedes him. It stems from a criminal mischief charge in 1999 after he was arrested with a drug-dealing friend in Manhattan, he said.
Until recent years, he went to Broadway plays. He still enjoys the sounds of Bach, Beethoven, and Tchaikovsky.
He is also a man of many lives. He started as a family man married with two children in the mid-1980s, working for the Department of Justice out of their New York office, although he declined to say specifically what kind of work he did.
A bitter divorce, the death of his mother, and being diagnosed by doctors with post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition he attributed to a tumultuous childhood in the Bronx, sent him on a downward spiral of drug use.
“I started taking drugs since it was hard to accept that I was suffering from mental illness,” Mario said. “Unfortunately, it took me places I never want to ever see again.”
As a homeless man fighting deep depression and drug addiction, Mario began to experience the kind of humiliating treatment that came when people only saw him on a surface level, especially after he was diagnosed with tuberculosis.
“I remember I would visit people and notice that whenever I left a room or got up from a chair, they would be wiping down things,” Mario said. “Now I am not bitter at them. My attitude is ‘Ignorance is bliss.’ “
Mario also began to develop a better understanding for his fellow homeless people, remembering how he once treated them as a working man.
“Whenever I saw a homeless person, I would chase them away or ignore them,” Mario said.
Mario’s journey of self-destruction stopped in 1999, when he sought treatment for drug addiction. He says he has stayed sober ever since.
Living in abandoned buildings
Mario has rented furnished rooms, but those weren’t perfect situations.
‘People don’t understand that living in a furnished room means living with other people, like in a shelter,” Mario said, “and if a landlord wants to evict for any reason, he can pack your stuff and lock you out of your room.”
He has also sneaked into abandoned houses and lived in shacks throughout Jersey City, with the occasional stay at St. Lucy’s Shelter on Grove Street near the Jersey City-Hoboken border. Now he is much less active, saying he suffers from diabetes and arthritis.
For most of the last five years, Mario has lived in the PERC Shelter.
“They have supportive for me in so many ways to help me get back on my feet again,” Mario said.
Mario credits Tom Harrigan, the director of programming for the PERC Shelter, for informing him about the program to place chronically homeless people in permanent housing.
If there is a downside to this, it has come from the realities of paying his rent and his own bills. His Social Security Disability check is $657 a month.
But he has reached out to his ex-wife and children to let them know he is doing better.
“My daughter, who is a minister, told me the last time we talked that she knew this would happen as she was praying for me,” Mario said. “Now, I wake up every day and pinch myself.”
Daniel Altilio, the president & CPO of the United Way of Hudson County, explained recently that the collaboration of HUD, United Way of Hudson County, Jersey City Episcopal CDC, and the PERC Shelter brought about a program that employs the “Housing First” model. “Housing First” is a practice that helps homeless move from the streets or from homeless shelters into their own community-based apartments. It was created by the New York City organization Pathways to Housing in the early 1990s, and has been endorsed by the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) as a way for governments and service-agencies to end homelessness.
Altilio said this is the first time that the Housing First program is being employed in Hudson County, as part of the county’s 10-Year Plan to End Chronic Homelessness.
He also credited Sister Maria Cordis of the House of Faith, a transitional housing facility for homeless people in Jersey City, with championing the Housing First concept.
In Hudson County, a HUD grant and United Way matching money, which amounted to a total of $1.2 million, is being utilized to place those whom Altilio calls “the hardest cases” like Mario in housing. The Jersey City Episcopal CDC gives the referrals for the housing while the PERC shelter gives the referrals of their clients.
“It’s far more compassionate to end someone’s homelessness rather than give them a handout,” Altilio said.