Peter Young: Housing, Industry, & Treatment

Father Young's Biography

Peter Young's first assignment as a priest was to a downtown section of Albany called "the combat zone."

"We had one of the largest brothel areas in the East," he recalled. "We had about 150 people walking in every day with all sorts of problems. It was poverty, poverty, poverty."

At that time, he had no idea he would one day be a recognized leader in the field of addiction – or that he would champion the overturning of unfair laws that treated addiction as a crime, instead of an illness. That he would one day oversee treatment, housing and vocational programs serving thousands of New Yorkers never crossed his mind.

The Siena College graduate, who attended seminary at St. Bonaventure University and in Ottawa after serving in the Navy in the Korean War, was a priest teaching eight periods at the parish school in the most crime-ridden part of Albany every day.

But at night, he took in up to 200 men and women looking for a place to sleep on the gymnasium floor. Almost all were drunk.

The athletic priest, who was 6-foot-5 and weighed about 325, would often "do battle" with the intoxicated who became violent. The next morning, he would sit down for coffee with those same individuals and find they were decent people, caught in addiction.

"And I would say 'what is wrong here, what kind of chemistry is going on with this person?'"

Over the years, his search for those answers took him to many sources, including the Yale School of Alcohol Studies and to Ohio, where he worked with one of the key leaders in the early Alcoholics Anonymous movement, Sister Ignatia.

"I learned from Sister Ignatia that I needed to become a matchmaker," he said, "introducing the addicted person to someone already stable in recovery." Involving "wounded healers" to serve those in need is still today one of the guiding beliefs in all Peter Young programs.

His work with the addicted led him to be a court chaplain, where judges would give individuals arrested for intoxication a choice, "Go to jail or go with Father."

It was during that time in which Father Young realized that the laws that criminalized addiction were unjust. "I said, we don't need to incarcerate these people, we need to rehabilitate them."

It took 14 years and 35,000 meetings, Father Young recounted, for him to change the laws within the state Legislature to decriminalize addiction and help establish a treatment system within New York.

Through that time, he became a grassroots organizer and activist of sorts, working to educate anyone who would listen about the disease of addiction.

"I got a lot of resistance when I wanted to talk about addiction. I ran into a lot of difficulty and opposition from people who thought it was a self-made disease."

While working as a chaplain in the state corrections system, Father Young developed a treatment model called the Comprehensive Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment program, which is still in use today.

"But every time I would finish a treatment program with an inmate who was being released, he'd say, "Hey Father, I'm all dressed up with no place to go,' meaning he had no place to live upon release, no job and no aftercare to support his recovery."

"I realized I've got to create industries, got to create housing. I listened to the inmates and took my agenda on as it came from them. They knew what they needed better than I did."

That is where the mission of "Creating taxpayers" began, using a philosophy for services that Father calls the three-legged stool: housing, education or vocational training that leads to a job, and professional addiction treatment.

"I got tired of being beaten up as a do-gooder and thought if I could get people to understand that if we help these people get back on their feet, we will be creating taxpayers."

Over the years, Father Young has founded and been involved with dozens of organizations offering treatment, housing, and vocational programs.

Now in his 80s, 18-hour days are still common for him. Retirement is not in his plans. Daily he is meeting, encouraging, working on the challenges facing individuals that PYHIT serves. His cell phone rings often. "I don't need much sleep," he said. "I never did."

He can visit any of the nearly 80 statewide locations where PYHIT has programs and businesses, greeting employees and program participants with high-fives, handshakes and hugs.

He is known for his ability to remember names and is stopped on streets from Albany to Buffalo by individuals whose lives have been touched.

He is also known as a catalyst, an innovator and servant, using the strengths of his personality: exuberance, passion, humor, and persistence to lead the charge for reforms and humane treatment for the impoverished, the addicted and the socially disenfranchised.

Respect is his calling card. When asked how he can be just as comfortable encouraging prison inmates as talking with governors and powerbrokers, his response is quick: "Is there any difference?"