A Death Jolts the Park’s Homeless

022011_homeless_JBN3J.B. Nicholas For many of the neighborhood’s homeless, the death of a woman who was sleeping outside St. Brigid’s Church on Sunday underscored the perilousness of life on the streets.
El Presidente
Grace's alcoveGreg Howard Top: A man known as El Presidente who frequents Tompkins Square Park. Below: The makeshift alcove where a woman’s body was found Sunday.

It’s been a day since Grace, the homeless woman who was a regular around Tompkins Square Park, was found dead under a scaffolding outside of St. Brigid’s Church. The layers of cardboard that she slept and died on are still on the ground, wet and wrinkled from the morning’s snow. Several rubber gloves, once worn by paramedics are strewn about. A single candle burns, a memorial to Grace’s lonely demise.

Tony, the homeless man who found Grace’s body, was unavailable for comment, but was said to still look shaken up this morning at The Bowery Mission from the loss of his friend, who he said had “a beautiful heart.”

Across the street in Tompkins Square Park, however, life is a bit more cheerful as dozens of homeless and needy New Yorkers line up for helpings of soup, bread, fruit, and vegetables that volunteers from The Bowery Mission are passing out. Men and women chat amicably, greeting familiar faces as they wait in the cold for the meal.

One of those in line, who identified himself only as “El Presidente,” 75, says he used to sleep at The Mission’s headquarters on the Bowery every night. Now, he says, he mostly spends the nights around Tompkins Square Park with a small band of younger men.

“They’re like my family,” El Presidente says. When asked about Grace, he scratches his head before conceding, “I don’t know her.” Disappointed, he asks for more physical detail, knowing that in the small Tompkins Square Park community, the likelihood of the two crossing paths was very high.

The sense of community extends to the volunteers of The Bowery Mission, as well. Marcus Nicholls, 25, has volunteered for just five months, but is familiar with a lot of the locals, greeting some by name.

“A lot of these people feel like people don’t care about them,” Mr. Nicholls says. “But we support them, we try to help them out.”

Matt Krivich, 37, director of operations at The Bowery Mission, is only too familiar with the constant uphill battle that the city’s neediest face. An ex-addict and homeless at one point himself, Mr. Krivich said he was saddened by Grace’s death.

He is not the only one to feel regret over her departure. Late on Monday afternoon people from the neighborhood stop at St. Brigid’s to gaze at the spot where Grace slept and died. The single candle has been joined by a second one and by handwritten messages.

“May the gods and goddesses bless you,” one reads. “You won’t be forgotten; your soul is at rest.”