UPPER WEST SIDE — Chronically homeless men and women living in city shelters and psychiatric hospitals, many of whom have never had a place to call their own, are moving into brand-new fully furnished apartments on Amsterdam Avenue.
The studios are part of a $13.2 million renovation of Cluster House, a supporting housing complex on the avenue at West 104th Street that's been in the neighborhood for more than 25 years.
Everyone who has toured the new building has been eager for a spot, said Frederick Shack, CEO of Urban Pathways, the nonprofit that owns and operates Cluster House.
"We've had clients come in and they're in tears. Many of them have never had their own apartment," he said.
The space and privacy of the units is "a luxury" for people accustomed to the streets and the shelter system, he added.
The three-year long renovation was geared toward giving residents, who are also mentally ill, greater independence and providing a less institutionalized feel, Shack explained.
The five-story building was completely gutted so that the new studios could each have a kitchen and a private bathroom. Residents no longer have to share a hallway bathroom or cram into the one basement-level kitchen, as they had previously, he said.
The new Cluster House is "designed to foster self-sufficiency," with the ultimate goal of helping residents move out and live on their own, Shack noted.
During the renovation, three more stories were added, taking the total number of units from 48 to 52.
The 380-square-foot single-person studios come equipped with furniture and linens, as well as cooking and cleaning supplies donated by Bed, Bath & Beyond so that residents have everything they need upon arrival, according to Shack.
This kit of supplies gives tenants a sense of dignity and agency, as do the reading nooks along each floor and the first-floor lounge that comes equipped with WiFi, he explained.
At the same time, Cluster House doesn't have a "one size fits all" model, noted Nicole Bramstedt, an urban policy analyst at Urban Pathways.
If residents aren't ready to cook for themselves, for example, their stoves can be turned off and staff cooks will prepare them meals twice a day in a larger renovated cafeteria in the basement, she said. Support staff can also teach residents how to cook.
Because the residents suffer from mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia there's a part-time psychiatrist on site who can adjust and monitor their medications and make referrals for treatment, Bramstedt added.
Cluster House first opened on Amsterdam Avenue in 1989 to serve women who were diagnosed as mentally ill and chronically homeless.
At the time, there was a strong need in New York City to serve homeless women, but the gender dynamic has shifted, Shack said. Now, 70 to 80 percent of the homeless on the street are men, he said.
To reflect this change, the rehabilitated Cluster House now serves women and men, he said.
While other supportive housing buildings in the neighborhood serve larger populations — Freedom House on West 95th Street once served 400 homeless individuals — "our approach is smaller, more intimate environments," Shack explained. The renovation was aimed at creating more space for residents, not at adding them, he said.
While living at Cluster House, residents can participate in monthly meetings to talk about issues there, and also join a variety of groups — from wellness to photography to self-advocacy — to help nurture their interests and create community, Bramstedt said.
Living in a brand-new building also fosters a sense of community and pride, she added.
Communicating "that you really care about their well-being" through a "clean, safe, well-maintained" environment is a form of therapeutic support, Shack said.