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Local Luminary Tricia Haggerty-Wenz 

“Do you mind taking the stairs? Elevators are too slow for me,” asks Tricia Haggerty-Wenz, executive director of Safe Harbors on the Hudson. A compact dynamo, she is leading me on a tour of the Cornerstone Residence, a building at the intersection of Broadway and Liberty Street in Newburgh with 116 units of supportive housing, 12 artist’s lofts, a professional gallery space (the Ann Street Gallery), and various amenities not often associated with affordable housing: a computer lab, a laundry room, a library. The building is spotless—Haggerty-Wenz will bend down to pick up scraps of paper from the floor throughout my tour—and scrupulous attention has been paid to the smallest details, from the tasteful furniture and art in the lobby to the paint job, which uses various warm shades of colors that are non-traditional for an “institution.” As we walk through the residence, Haggerty-Wenz greets every tenant by name, inquiring after a family member or asking if they’ll be attending a computer class later that day.

Haggerty-Wenz formed Safe Harbors in 2000 and bought the 13,000-square-foot Hotel Newburgh in 2002 with a $3.1 million grant from the New York State Office of Temporary Disability and Assistance, a homeless housing assistance program. The complete gutting and rehabilitation of the dilapidated welfare hotel—where 88 people were living in squalor and drug dealers and prostitutes transacted business in the hallways—took two years, and cost $21 million, the second largest construction project in Newburgh’s history. Construction was completed in September 2006.

Haggerty-Wenz cites a project her former sister-in-law, Roseanne Haggerty, spearheaded in Time Square in 1991 as inspiration. (Haggerty-Wenz and her then husband served as manual labor.) Haggerty’s organization, Common Ground, bought a fleabag hotel on 44th Street and rebuilt it into an attractive affordable housing residence that eventually drew retail clients like Ben and Jerry’s and Starbucks, and was in the vanguard of Times Square’s transformation.

Safe Harbors, whose offices are housed in the Cornerstone Residence, has 25 full-time employees, most of whom directly serve the needs of tenants, from job counseling to conducting GED classes in the building’s computer lab. Haggerty-Wenz’s next project is restoring the vacant 800-seat Ritz Theater, adjacent to the Cornerstone Residence and owned by Safe Harbors, to its former glory. (Lucille Ball made her stage debut there in 1941.) All Haggerty-Wenz needs to do is raise $10 million for the rehabilitation.

“I know I can do it,” she says. Given what Haggerty-Wenz has accomplished thus far, the project’s success seems assured.

A fundraising concert by singer Levi Kreiss to benefit the restoration of the Ritz Theater will be held on February 23 at 7pm in the lobby of the theater.
For tickets: (845) 562-6940; www.ticketweb.com

BKM: How did this project start?
THW: In my second year of social work at NYU, we were required to do field work. In my first group-therapy session [at Occupations in New Windsor], the very first person said, “I live in the Hotel Newburgh and I have no heat and I’m freezing every day.” Then another person said, “I live in the Hotel Newburgh, I just got out of jail, I have a 15-year crack addiction, and the guy next door to me is selling drugs.” Another woman who lived at the hotel said, “I have to put my chair and dresser in front of my door every night because I’m afraid.”

I thought, I know a solution, because I had seen what Common Ground had done in Times Square. So I called Roseanne [Haggerty] up and said, “You have to buy this building in Newburgh.” On my very first day of fieldwork! She told me to find out more and get back to her. So I started driving to Newburgh and venturing into the building. It was disgusting. It smelled terrible.

That summer, Roseanne suggested I set up a meeting [with the owner of the building]. We met with the owner, and afterward I asked Roseanne, “What do you think?,” thinking all along that it would be a Common Ground project. And she says, “Oh my gosh it’s such a great project—the city’s ripe for it, the people who live in the building need it.” I said, “Great, are you going to buy the building?” She said, “No, you are. I’ll show you how.” I said, “Okay, I’ll buy the building.” So I quit my job, I stopped going to school, and I got up the next day and realized I had started to build an organization.

What made you think you could undertake this massive project?
I just had this idea and it didn’t occur to me that I couldn’t. And this is where being naive comes into play in a good way. Afterward, as I was going through countless zoning and planning board meetings, I wondered, “What was I thinking?” I mean, I know I didn’t have the background to do this, but I don’t have a background to build a theater either—but I’m going to do that too.

And just knowing that at that time, 1999, that people were living in the United States in such horrific conditions. No one should live the way people were living here. There was no extermination, roaches and rats in the ceilings. A rat fell out of the ceiling on my colleague’s head while he standing in the lobby. People would take their garbage and throw it in the hallway.

When I first started coming into the building in October 2002, I met with tenants every Friday. I wanted to meet with every tenant who was willing to meet with me, which wasn’t all of them. I met this lovely elderly woman, an African-American woman, and she had a Southern accent. I asked where she was from and told me she was from South Carolina. When I asked how she ended up in Newburgh, she said, “My mom ran a boarding house, and when I was 13 I was raped and became pregnant by one of the boarders. But she couldn’t lose her business. So she put me on a bus. This is where I ended up.”

There was a homeless kid who showed up here who said his parents threw him out because he was gay. That was in 2003. Can you imagine that still happens? Why doesn’t she and he and anyone else not deserve an environment where they feel safe and secure? One of our residents, Billy Ford, was a life-long junkie. He moved here in a horrible condition, but he’s been clean for the past five years and he’s in his late 50s and is going for his GED. How cool is that? What an accomplishment that will be for him. It’ll probably mean more to him than for some people who get PhDs. To afford people that opportunity—I don’t know—how do you not do it?

How do cultural components like the Ann Street Gallery and the restoration of the Ritz Theater fit into Safe Harbor’s mission?

When I was in graduate school I did a paper on Newburgh fairly early on and it was apparent that the city needed much more than straight-up housing. I realized doing this project that if you add elements of the arts—artist’s lofts, an art gallery—nobody can point their finger at this building and say, “Drive by quick, that’s where the homeless live!” The building has different uses, so you can’t define the building as a homeless shelter. And so, if you’re homeless and you move in here, no one knows your background. Walking through the building you’ll see some people who are artists, some who aren’t. You can’t tell the difference. I wanted to bring an extra degree of dignity to the building, so there’s a sense of pride living here versus a shelter, or a place where people know it’s only for the homeless.

click to enlarge Tricia Haggerty-Wenz, executive director Safe Harbors on the Hudson
  • Tricia Haggerty-Wenz, executive director Safe Harbors on the Hudson
click to enlarge The Exterior of the Cornerstone Residence in Newburgh
  • The Exterior of the Cornerstone Residence in Newburgh

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