Q&A: Craig Mayes, head of NYC Rescue Mission, on how to help the homeless

Craig Mayes, head of the NYC Rescue Mission

Craig Mayes, head of the NYC Rescue Mission (Credit: Courtesy of NYC Rescue Mission )

Craig Mayes, PhD, 57, is the executive director of the New York City Rescue Mission. He lives with his wife, Chris, who is a pastor, in Gramercy Park.

What would you most like to see changed in NYC?

Could the mayor and the City Council please raise the temperature in the winter? We have 50,000 homeless people in NYC and it's too cold for them! But really, I wish that both the private and public sectors could come together and develop a comprehensive strategy to address the root causes of homelessness. We need to not only increase the number of beds, but decrease the number of people who need them. How can we reduce the number of people seeking beds? The causes behind homelessness are complex, and include immigration, financial difficulties, addiction and mental illness.

Are people homeless as a result of macro economic forces or their own poor choices?

The working poor are getting squeezed more and more, it's true. Mental illness and addictions are prominent reasons, but one size does not fit all. We have had former Wall Street guys here. When I was a volunteer, I got to talking to a (homeless) guy who had a Master's in Finance from a big 10 school. He lost his job. Then his wife filed for divorce and he couldn't get another job.

So there are forces beyond people's control.

We're graduating seven guys tonight from our residential treatment program. They'll find jobs. Two have been hired by Fresh Direct. But will they find housing they can afford anywhere in this city? How does NYC address the fact that we need blue collar workers?

How do your offerings differ from what the city provides?

We have 30 people in our year-long recovery program for alcohol and drugs but we also shelter another 120 men a night. We meet people where they are, so they can find a better future. If someone wants to get a GED, a job, or spiritual help, we help them recover their lives. ... The city provides a bed and a meal and maybe some clothing, but the people have to leave every day.

The Salvation Army has received bad press for it's position on gay people. Where do you stand on that?

We don't discriminate. We have nothing in our rules or guidelines about gay people and if they're willing to abide by our rules, we take them. But when you're under our roof, you're celibate - that applies across the board to everyone.

How has the NIMBY ("not in my backyard") forces affected your work?

This neighborhood (Tribeca) is changing. I get an offer for our building at least once a month. I tell them, 'don't you see the scaffolding? Not only are we not selling: We're expanding! We're putting on three more floors!' We work very hard on what is happening outside our building and work with the Fifth Precinct, too. They know we're taking people off the streets.

What can housed people do to help the homeless?

Know where the closest shelters are and provide referrals. There are no statistics to back up that if someone is homeless, they are more likely to be a threat, but for some reason many people are afraid of the homeless. But they're very tender and vulnerable people who are hurting.

Do you always have room to take everyone in?

In winter, especially, we can run out of space. When the temperature really drops, though, we get a "code blue," and the city suspends its guidelines for occupancy: They're a little more lenient then about enforcement.

How do you measure success?

In two ways: 100% of the people who come here and are hungry get fed. Most get a bed, and if they don't get one here, we'll try to get them one somewhere else. For our residential programs, it's harder to tell. Someone can be sober here for 12 months, but then get out and eventually fall back into the pattern. We're going to be doing a better job of measuring in the future. But we are always here for them.

What most surprised you about New York?

How helpful the people are! You can't open a map on the sidewalk without someone asking, "what are you looking for?"

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