Peter Young has spent more than a half-century working with the disenfranchised of his Albany parish, which is located in what was called the “combat zone.” He spent the first 18 years of his ministry giving his all—quite literally. By 1976, he was near bankruptcy. He had racked up a personal debt of more than $200,000 trying to lift up his parishioners. And he was fast becoming an expert on overcoming addiction.
His financial salvation came in the guise of a full-time job as chaplain of the state-run McGregor Correctional Facility. Added to the 18 years he’d already spent ministering to the needs of local inmates at the county jail, his 15-year tenure at McGregor gave Father Young a seasoned perspective on addiction, crime, and recovery.
He didn’t need to have the statistics recited to him—70% of inmates owe their incarcerations to substance abuse problems—he witnessed it first-hand. Father Young chose to address the problems he saw within the existing framework, but without accepting the status quo.
His approach has been to work with the state to promote legislative and regulatory change that makes a difference. His first coup, shortly after he started at St. John’s Church, was to introduce legislation that removed public intoxication from the penal code.
Father Young also learned the value of good contacts: with the help of then-Governor Rockefeller, Young developed the state’s first alcohol crisis center and extended care facility.
Father Young also worked with the New York State Department of Corrections to create the first Alcohol and Substance Abuse Treatment program. The program relies on principles that Father Young long ago made a part of his program: full recovery is only possible if treatment occurs in concert with housing and employment. He likens it to a three-legged stool. Missing one leg, the stool cannot stand.
Outside the prison walls and the rigors of his full-time job, Father Young worked just as hard building up the other two legs of the stool. As part of his program, clients first go through treatment to shed their addictions. They then are provided housing, so that life on the street doesn’t send them right back to their addiction. Finally, employment provides income, purpose and independence. If just one of the three support prongs is removed, the success rate drops dramatically. Over the years, he has established a network of recovery programs, counseling and education services, housing, and job training. The services often exist as part of a joint venture with various state programs and grants—making for a successful public/private partnership.
Since 1959, the amalgam of services that have Peter Young’s name on them have been known as Peter Young Housing, Industries and Treatment (PYHIT). In 1992, when Father Young bid farewell to his job at the correctional facility (and retired his debt), there were 41,000 inmates enrolled in rehab programs he’d helped create.
PYHIT helps more than 5,000 people every day through its various treatment and residential programs. PYHIT boasts a recidivism rate of less than 10 percent. Eighty-five percent of its clients return to productive lives. PYHIT operates sites in counties across New York State. Over the 50-plus years of its existence PYHIT has helped hundreds of thousands move from addiction to becoming tax-paying members of society.
To ease the transition, Father Young promotes the concept of the “wounded healer.” He believes that successfully recovering addicts are the best teachers for those not as far along the path—and he asks people in his program to espouse the same philosophy. The result is enhanced self-esteem and a renewed sense of hope and purpose. Father Young loves to call it the “glidepath” to recovery, drawing comparisons between the wounded healer support system and the guided support a plane needs to land on an aircraft carrier.
Past the age when most people retire, Father Young continues his tireless devotion to people in recovery. Ever on the move, he’s a flurry of activity: cell phone calls, emails in his distinctive font, personal visits with those down on their luck. Despite the “busyness” of his life, he never forgets he is, first and foremost, a priest. “You’ll never see him without his collar, and every Sunday, he says the 4:00 pm mass,” said Andy Korts, Father Young’s long-time secretary. “It gives him the greatest joy.”