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home : opinion : perspectives

10/6/2016 9:00:00 AM
Where is the mercy for people with addiction?

(Editor's note: Father Young is a retired priest of the Albany Diocese and founder of Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment. PYHIT provides addiction treatment, housing, vocational training and job placement. Call 518-463-8485.)

I stuck out my hand to shake the hand of a visiting state investigator. He pulled his hand back.

"We know you," he said. "You work with criminals."

That was the beginning.

There are three parables in Scripture that relate to mercy: the widow's mite, the prodigal son and the good Samaritan. I keep thinking of the prodigal son. What did the father do? He broke the law; he ran out to meet his son. In Old Testament times, the son had to prove himself worthy of being reunited with his family. He had to go through a purification process. But the father ran down and greeted him with open arms. He broke all of the rules.

I feel the same way.

I have worked in prisons and worked closely with addicts for more than 58 years, and I've enjoyed meeting some great "wounded healers" who reach out to offer mercy to those in need.

In this jubilee Year of Mercy, with Pope Francis' motto that we be "Merciful like the Father," placing the Gospel -- especially the parable of the mercy of the forgiving father -- is top priority. As a priest, I want to offer mercy. The role of a priest is to convert from the negative to the positive.

In the 1950s, anyone with an addiction was considered a bum. I saw addiction as the tip of an iceberg. My mission was to decriminalize addiction. When assigned, as a newly-ordained priest, to St. John's parish in the South End of Albany, I asked, "What are the needs here?"

Addiction and homelessness were of major concern. Finding employment for people, the dignity of a paycheck, was also a serious concern. The area in which St. John's parish was located was known, at that time, as a "red light district" where prostitution, gambling, drugs and alcohol were without regular policing -- a kind of crime containment area. Political leaders told me they felt this prevented organized crime from coming into Albany.

For years, St. John's was engaged in social issues and outreach to the South End community. In 1959, I founded PYHIT (the Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment program).

I've always talked about the three-legged stool: treatment, housing and employment. Providing housing for the addicted and parolees, with an emphasis on mercy, has been our priority.

For a decade, those shelters were supported by parish and fellowship members, without public money. With hundreds of volunteers and, later, state funding, many other programs and agencies were created. Our program grew to well over 100 New York State program sites.

A state survey of those who transitioned into our aftercare programs showed that they had a 90-percent-plus successful community reintegration record. I had 15,000 to 18,000 clients a day. I would tell people, "If you stick with your treatment, I'll get you a job -- in food service, in construction." I had [a contract for] custodial jobs at the State Capitol.

We have to get people on the path of mercy. Today, heroin has become the drug that takes control of some of our most talented people and destroys their future. About a third of addicted people are genetically predisposed to it. There has to be an understanding of what heroin addiction is all about - and recovery takes time. You have to get the person into a preventive program for long enough to get the intellect in control over the emotions.

Through advocating at the State Capitol. I was successful over the years in getting funding for many New York State clients, especially for treatment programs for those needing community reintegration. Reflecting on Pope Francis' words on mercy, I feel I've had personal experience of what he wrote about those "living on the outermost fringes of society."

The statewide footprint I had, I developed out of necessity. You don't get social services if you don't put the person back in residence in the area they're from. We're a block grant state; we don't pay for anything out of our area. That's why I went all over setting up PYHIT sites.

Guys would float in here [after prison] and say, "Father, help me." I'd get them in a clean and sober setting. I put them in some of our programs.

In 2012, after a state investigation over a terminated employee we reported for stealing from the program, we lost our job contracts. We had to close programs and housing in Brooklyn, Queens, Rochester, Buffalo, Syracuse. We had to get rid of all our supportive housing, terminating several hundred of our staff. Legal fees exploded.

Many times, I've been accused of being a criminal because of being a friend of criminals and addicts. I've been unable to assist those who daily call, write or visit with me, asking for help around community reintegration.

Now, former clients don't have supervision - someone saying, "OK, we're going to go to a meeting." Without support, there is a greater percentage of recidivism. Previously, 90-92 percent of those who completed our program never returned to prison. We would say, "I'll give you a job, and that will give you the dignity of a paycheck." We gave them hope.

Recently, I had two funerals in one week for people who died of a drug overdose. These were people who formerly were doing well in recovery. Mercy has been withdrawn from these clients. That gets to me. I'm looking at people who should have a chance for recovery and don't.

I'm 86; I don't have time to waste. I'm eager to continue. I feel that's what a priest should be doing. What the father in the prodigal son story did, I want to do: to emulate the father who ran out and greeted his son and said, "Get the robes and put them on him." He helped his son return to society.

I'm still hoping to go forward and rebuild. Famed English economist Adam Smith said, "Supply services must meet the need." May this Year of Mercy be the motivating encouragement. We need people to help.

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