Luis G.

Traveling To Upstate New York – And Back In Time 26 Years

Friday, March 20, 2015

I often wonder — even after so many years — why I still get a funny feeling in my stomach when I’m traveling to upstate New York. After all, my purpose for this trip is a lot different from the last time I traveled upstate back in August 1989.

At that time, I was 21, on a bus, and my hands and feet were shackled. To make matters worse, I was shackled next to a complete stranger. In fact, everybody on the bus was a complete stranger to me. I had this somber expression on my face, unsure of what to expect. I didn’t even know where I was going or what was ahead of me. All I knew at that time was that we were in the middle of nowhere, driving for hours with nothing but cars, trees, grass, mountains, and open fields everywhere I looked.

Twenty six years later, here I was heading upstate again, the same nervous feeling in my gut, but for different reasons, even though it wasn’t my first time making this trip. Like the previous two trips last year, I knew the driver and the passengers, and we were in a white company van as opposed to a bus. After all, these were my colleagues, today was Lobby Day, and we were all heading to Albany to advocate – not lobby – for additional housing funds.

Sitting with me were Ruben, Life Skills Coordinator for The Academy, our infamous driver who had to be reminded that he wasn’t driving a Pontiac GTO; Leslie, Case Manager for The Academy, silently anticipating what was ahead of her because this was her first time participating in Lobby Day; Bernard, Supervisor for Scattered Site Housing, who reminds me of a big teddy bear; David, Academy resident, who was ready to advocate because he loves politics and debating; Otis, another Academy resident, who told us that this was his first time in a car or van after 40 years in prison; Damon, Case Manager for Castle Gardens, who hoped aloud that the weather wouldn’t turn for the worse when we headed back south; and Victor, Academy Case Manager, who kept asking himself what the heck possessed him to wake up so early in the morning and make this trip again, since this was not his first time either. No matter what our thoughts or feelings were at that moment, we were prepared and looking forward to Albany.

After two hours and 45 minutes of driving and then having difficulties finding parking, we finally arrived at Empire State Plaza. Instead of entering and seeing tall cement walls, we entered a complex with several state buildings. Instead of dull floors, it had marble shiny floors. And instead of being greeted by COs reminding you whose house you were entering, we were all ignored by people in business suits heading in every direction, constituents from different organizations advocating for various reasons.

Walking inside the Capitol Building is like walking through Times Square, but indoors. The only thing that came close to resembling a prison in this building was the security guards and state troopers in the Security Area that one had to pass through.

Oddly enough, they have a huge McDonalds there that reminded me of the mess hall at Clinton CF. That’s where we met up with our colleague Elymar, Supervisor for Castle Gardens. She lives in upstate NY so it was easier for her to get to Albany from her house than from Manhattan. Our coordinator, Edline Martinez, from SHNNY, was also there to greet us and to give us a brief orientation on our talking points while reminding us that we were a last-minute addition and so our organization wasn’t even on the schedule.

These were our talking points:

(1) Expand NY/NY 4 beyond Governor’s $5,000 Unit Commitment to 30,000 units
(2) $8,000,000 for The Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance which funds our Emergency Phase and Transitional units at The Academy
(3) $99 million dollars for The Office of Mental Health to provide Supportive Housing, and CR/SP/SRO housing

We were left to pick and choose who we wanted to meet with. After a brief discussion, we decided that we wanted to meet with every member of the Housing Committee. After walking past Security, we headed to our first location, The Legislative Office Building.

Our first stop was with Latrice M. Walker, Assemblywomen for the 55th district (Brooklyn, East New York, Crown Heights, and Bed-Stuy). She greeted us with open arms and we had a wonderful conversation with her. Although, she was a freshman, she was part of the Housing and Correctional Association Committee and so she was very interested in what we had to say because housing and criminal justice were issues very dear and important to her. When I spoke, it was clear I was nervous; I don’t talk very often to politicians. I tend to leave that to Stanley, who definitely has the charisma and characteristics to be a politician, and Max, my two mentors who were nowhere to be found for me to lean on. Nevertheless, I had a wonderful, intelligent group of people who had my back to support me. We told her why we were there, and she gave us a brief bio of herself. She made it clear that she could relate to the struggles of the men and women whom we served.

An interesting bit of information: she told us that some of the furniture in her office was made by Corcraft whose products are made by men and women currently incarcerated. After a brief picture-taking session, I invited her to visit The Academy. Hopefully, she will find time in her schedule to meet our residents someday.

Next we met with the legal assistant of Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh (74th district which represents parts of lower Manhattan) who wasn’t available. Then we met with Cristy Parque, Executive Director to Homeless Services United. She was very excited to see us, especially since it is our residents who make the most impact in these meetings. She loves The Fortune Society and what we do. David, our Academy resident, did a great job expressing the importance of housing and how being in a transitional housing program like ours has afforded him the opportunity to work on the things he needed to work on to get his life together. David’s theme was that “The Academy should be replicated,” which I love.

Next on our agenda was Assemblywoman Latoya Joyce who wasn’t available but we were able to meet with her assistant. We also had the opportunity to meet two interesting people who happen to love JoAnne Page — Maureen Friar, Strategic Development Officer from Community Access, and Tim O’Hanlon, from Hudson Housing Capital. Tim spoke highly of Fortune, especially about how beautiful our Castle Gardens building looks since he helped fund the project to build it. I informed him that we were looking for property to build another Castle Gardens and he made it clear that he should be contacted.

You’d be surprised how time flies when you running around going from one office to the next. After our third meeting, we decided it was lunch time. While my colleagues ventured off to eat, I took a walk to see Assemblyman Marcos Crespo (85th District, The Bronx). I had tried to see him earlier, but he hadn’t been available and he wasn’t on our list to visit. Nevertheless, I had met him last year at my cousin’s in-laws’ 50th wedding anniversary. When I informed his aides who I was and that I just wanted to say “hi,” he immediately agreed to see me despite the fact that he had a group of Latinos outside his office waiting to see him. He asked me why I had come, and I reminded him where I worked and why my organization was there. He admitted that he wasn’t a big fan of transitional housing, preferring permanent housing, but he assured me that he was onboard.

Although we were interested in meeting more members, earlier Cristy Parque had insisted that we all gather at the Assembly Chambers at 2:30 PM because The Fortune Society was going to be recognized on the floor. The Assembly Chambers is located in The Capitol Building which happens to be a lovely building with antique elevators, huge spiral staircases, and it’s where the Governor has his office. On our way to the Assembly Chambers, I ran into Senator Bill Perkins in the hallway. I immediately yelled out his name and told him who I was and where I was from. He nodded his head in recognition, shook my hand, and went about his business. Even though he was in a rush to go elsewhere, he made it clear that he was very familiar with Fortune.

When we initially arrived at The Chambers, it was full and because there were so many of us, they didn’t want to let us in. Nevertheless, after some convincing by one of my colleagues, they agreed to seat all of us.

The Assembly Chambers is where legislative proceedings take place, and it was an interesting experience sitting there. Unfortunately, after about 30 minutes, Fortune still wasn’t recognized on the floor. And because it had started snowing and my colleagues were concerned about the drive back to the city in bad weather, we decided that our venture at Empire State Plaza had come to an end. It had been a wonderful experience — and I’m sure my colleagues felt the same way.

It’s interesting that the thoughts that initially occupied me on my way to Albany had subsided after the first meeting because I realized that I was no longer that guy wearing greens heading to prison. That person doesn’t exist anymore. The guy who came to Albany is a new person just trying to make a difference in other people’s lives, and I look forward to the next trip. Now if only I could find my way to a voting booth. I haven’t voted since 1988, but, hey, that’s a different story.

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