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The Bowery Mission Braces for Winter

...the more things stay the sameMichelle RickSkilled, unemployed, homeless, on The Bowery.

At exactly 4:45 a.m. everyday, Albert Alston flicks on the lights to rouse the men asleep on what passes for a dormitory annex at the Bowery Mission–its chapel floor and pews. “I do it the same way I did it as a platoon sergeant,” he said. “I know I just have to get them up.”

Sometimes the men wake weary-eyed and waspish, but not usually. “Sergeant” Alston’s gruff voice and wide grin are part of a routine they’ve come to expect when sleeping at the Mission this winter, as temperatures drop and it’s become too cold to stay outside.

They turn to the Mission for shelter in extreme weather-induced emergencies, too, as we saw last month, when it became a refuge for many neighborhood residents without power during Hurricane Sandy, as well as when the Nor’easter dropped that thick coat of snow soon after. But even before the storms, the staff was braced for its annual winter increase in homeless patrons, which can mean up to 50 percent more than the usual 700 meals to serve, and twice as many men to lodge.

“The elements can kill them,” Matt Krivich explained. He’s the mission’s director of operations. “We’ve lost a couple of our guests before to hypothermia. That’s why we open up our chapel.” Krivich and the Mission’s other staff–many once homeless themselves–have an open-door policy for anyone seeking shelter from the cold.

When temperatures drop below 40 degrees, the Mission provides regular shelter to 80 men in its residential recovery program and emergency shelter to up to 80 more, making room for 30 in the dining room in addition to the 50-plus it can handle in the chapel. During some snowy weeks last winter, the Mission even allowed community members to sleep in the serving line near the kitchen.

“How can you turn somebody away when you’ve got space?” Krivich said. “If it’s just up on stage, if it’s in the serving line?”

As the chapel usher, Alston helps organize the emergency housing guests, part of the group known here as the “community.” Though other staff caution that the community can be “rough,” Alston gets along with them.

“That’s only because I give them the same respect they give me,” he said.

It might also be because the 56-year-old Alston, soft-spoken with bright eyes, is down on his luck, too. He lost his job at a Canarsie metal yard in September because “they decided to keep all them younger guys.” Shortly after, Alston’s landlord decided to sell his apartment building in Brooklyn. Not wanting to burden his mother, Alston went to a veteran’s organization in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn looking for a place to live. The organization connected him with the Mission, which had a spot free in their residency program.

Alston’s been here for two months, living in the actual dorm above the chapel. As part of his new job, he shepherds the community into pews for service three times a day before the kitchen opens. Read more…

Post-Sandy, Bowery Mission and Other Shelters Kept Up Their Good Work

Dining Hall in Bowery MissionSanna Chu Dining Hall at Bowery Mission

Before restaurants and food distribution centers mobilized in the wake of Sandy, shelters and religious institutions that have long fed the neighborhood’s needy were already in high gear.

Last week, more than 160 additional people bunkered down in the Bowery Mission’s emergency shelter areas. James Macklin, director of outreach, said the shelter’s 10 staffers took the uptick in stride, continuing to serve three hot meals a day to 80 permanent residents as well as the influx of visitors.

“I was cooking by torchlight,” said Delon Ali, a chef at Bowery Mission. “We served 700 to 1,000 plates per day here.”

Aside from its long-term residents, the 133-year-old organization provides emergency housing for overnight guests when the temperature drops below 40 degrees and during extreme weather. During cold nights, the Mission might see up to 100 people sleeping in its chapel and dining room.

Mr. Macklin said 160 might have been a record high, but in the 27 years he has worked at the shelter, he has never seen anyone turned away. “I haven’t seen it done and I don’t think we will ever do that,” he said.

During the storm last Monday, the Mission, along with much of downtown Manhattan, was plunged into darkness. It took to Twitter to call for a generator. The next day, three came: two were used to power the Mission on Bowery and one was used at its Transitional Center on Avenue D.

James Macklin at Bowery MissionSanna Chu James Macklin at Bowery Mission

The Mission gets regular donations from individuals and businesses including Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Duane Reade, and others. After the storm, there was an even greater outpouring of support. “We have buses coming all the way from Elmira, N.Y., loaded from top to bottom and they’re coming back again to help us do what we do,” Mr. Macklin said. Even neighboring pizzeria Pulino’s sent over some grub.

The donations weren’t just for those at the shelter. The Mission also distributes food all over the city, from churches to Coney Island. It gave away hot meals and supplies on Avenue D today.

Charles Reaves, 43, who had been staying at the Mission for five months, wasn’t troubled much by the storm. “It got a little crowded in here at night but it was okay,” he said. “It was for a good reason. We got to provide food and shelter for a lot of people who otherwise had nowhere to go.”

For Matt Krivich, 38, the Mission’s director of operations, Sandy brought a sense of uncertainty but also of unity. “It brought all of us together a little bit more because we didn’t have distractions. We have a great staff and our residents all stepped up and helped maintain order and keep people safe.”

Over at the Catholic Worker, workers were able to continue using gas ovens to serve hot meals to over 40 residents split between St. Joseph house and Maryhouse. The weekday soup line – normally open to the public from 10 a.m. till 11.30 a.m., Monday through Friday – continued uninterrupted. “But we were cooking in the dark,” said Carmen Trotta, 47, a Catholic worker.

The Catholic Worker did not house any Sandy refugees, since its houses are usually at capacity.

Avenue D Sandy reliefSanna Chu Relief Effort on Avenue D

With their overstocked freezer, the workers were able to keep food cold for a few days after the power went out, before doing a cook-off with leftover meat. Some salad had to be thrown out but there was no big loss, according to Mr. Trotta.

“It was a humbling experience to see how quickly our high-tech society can crumble,” said Mr. Trotta. With the lights out, the residents were forced to sleep longer. And with nowhere to go, the workers and residents drew closer together as a community.

While the Catholic Worker’s soup line was a little longer than usual, Graffiti Church had a different experience. The church’s normal Wednesday and Saturday meal services saw fewer people than usual, probably because many had moved out of the area to seek shelter.

In addition to organizing a clothing drive, the church has been helping local residents clean out their apartments and fight mold. “People in this area have never had to deal with this problem before,” said Reverend Taylor Field. To address it, the church, at 205 East Seventh Street, will hold a free mold prevention seminar tonight, from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m.

Neglected 13th St. Building To Receive $3 Million Upgrade for Gay Teens

IMG_2870Sarah Darville The vacant building at 222 East 13th Street.

A long-vacant and dilapidated building will become a safe haven for homeless gay, lesbian and transgender young people thanks to $3.3 million in grants from city officials and a crucial city approval.

The Cooper Square Committee and the Ali Forney Center plan to transform 222 East 13th Street, a three-story building owned by the city’s Department of Housing Preservation and Development, into the Bea Arthur Residence For L.G.B.T. Youth. Last week, the organizations found out that the City Council had allocated $3 million and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer had allocated an additional $300,000 to the project — money that will allow them to move ahead with renovations.

“Homeless L.G.B.T. youth, most of whom have been cast out of their homes, have faced the worst kind of cruelty and rejection,” said Carl Siciliano, executive director of the Ali Forney Center, in a statement. “I am overwhelmed with gratitude that they are now being shown kindness by this community and its leaders.” Read more…

Union Square Murder Suspect To Be Cleared

The suspect in the July slaying of a homeless man in Union Square is expected to be cleared of charges, DNA Info reports. The 29-year-old man, Keenan Bryce, was charged with brutally beating the homeless man to death with a bike lock and chain. But Mr. Bryce’s brother refused to accept that his mentally ill sibling was guilty, and through a good deal of research was able to prove that Mr. Bryce was in New Jersey during the time of the murder.

State of the ‘Crusties’

Back in June, The Times asked, “In the East Village, Where Have All the Nomads Gone?” Now The Villager reports that some of the so-called “travelers” or “crusties” have returned to Tompkins Square Park, “though in smaller numbers.” A reputation for heroin is keeping one couple away; meanwhile in a separate item, veteran “gutter pirate” L.E.S Jewels tells The Villager that it’s not easy getting sober in the park since, he says, “everyone keeps offering me drinks.”

Shutters Down at a Food Pantry

Tim Milk

The Church of the Nativity has for many years serviced the less fortunate with their basement food pantry at 44 Second Avenue. Last week bilingual signs were posted advising locals that due to state and federal budget cuts, “The Food Pantry will be closed until further notice.”

Contrasts abound in the East Village. On one hand we see a fashionable epicenter with its glittering night life. But on the other one finds a place haunted by desperation. As families struggle to make ends meet, as unemployment takes its toll, as food prices rise, it is all the more regrettable to see a neighborhood food pantry shut for lack of funds.

It puts a very personal, poignant perspective on the rather circus-like proceedings in Washington over the debt ceiling. One has to wonder just how many food pantries must be closed in order to narrow State and Federal deficits.

Let us know what you think about the closure.

Panhandling as a Social Experiment

Chris CoonMeghan Keneally Chris Coon.

Chris Coon takes a very methodical and well-accounted approach to panhandling, not because he is particularly fond of organization, but because he thinks of his work on the sociological level.

Mr. Coon, 29, is conducting a “social experiment” by trying to see how long it will take him to ask one million people for a donation to help get him out of homelessness.

In order to preserve the integrity of the project, he has a number of rules that he follows: he doesn’t start making the rounds until about 1 p.m. because he doesn’t like to talk to people while they’re eating (“its not respectful,” he said). He tries to remember the faces of the people he talks to because he doesn’t want to count them twice. He prefers to talk to couples, because it counts as two people. And more than anything, he hates it when people cut him off mid-spiel because then it doesn’t count at all.

To Mr. Coon, it all comes down to the numbers, and since starting in the beginning of May, the big number is the 3,462 people he has asked.

“I think it’s intuitive and creative and I made it into a job instead of just going up and saying ‘Hey, look, can I have a dollar?’” he said. “I probably have to speak to five or six million people to be able to actually ask one million of them.”

When he approaches people in Union Square, which has been his base of operations and his home on and off for the past few years, Mr. Coon explains the concept of his “experiment” and then records their gender and ethnicity, in an attempt to make the project as professional and accurate as possible.

“I want this to feel as much as an experiment as it can because for me it is an experiment to see how quickly I get out of being homeless,” Mr. Coon said.
Read more…

A $10 Interview

Kevin by Brendan BernhardBrendan BernhardKevin.

We met because he needed money, and I happened to be standing on Avenue A in bright, windy sunshine looking like someone who had more of it than he did. Not that he looked poor exactly. He was wearing a nifty white hat, a clean New York Jets shirt, and blue jeans. He was a tall, good-looking black man with a friendly smile and what appeared to be a positive attitude. Before handing over a buck, I asked him why he couldn’t find a job.

“Five felonies” was his crisp reply. It sounded like a movie title. One of the five, he said, involved a cut throat, but it was an “accident.” He’d served time (several times), had stayed out of jail since 2005, and had no plans on returning. We talked about this and that for a minute or so and then parted ways.

An hour later I ran into him again. He was walking down St. Marks Place. He looked cheerful and greeted me like a long lost friend. I’d already told him I was a journalist and so we decided to stop at a kebab house on First Avenue for a brief interview. Of course there was a price: We settled on $10. Since I refused to pay extra for food, he purchased a minute salad from the self-service counter, which left him with $8.81.

I quickly jotted down some basics. Name: Kevin. Age: 40. Birthplace: Yonkers. Mother a cleaning lady, father an alcoholic. It turned out Kevin did have a job of sorts: Selling roses on the street, mostly in SoHo. But since he also had five felonies on his record, and was panhandling, I cut to the chase.

“What’s the problem?” I asked.

“Women, drugs, and alcohol.”

“What’s your problem with women?”

“I never had a problem with women. I make a problem. I don’t trust ‘em.”
Read more…

St. Mark’s Food Pantry Reopens

St. Mark's Food PantryMeghan Keneally The food pantry has reopened.

St. Mark’s Church in the Bowery started its annual food pantry last week, providing much needed food options for homeless and hungry in the East Village.

While there are two existing soup kitchens that provide hot meal options throughout the week, St. Mark’s is the only food pantry that is open mid week, allowing visitors to bring home fresh produce and non perishables so their supplies last till the weekend.

“There just aren’t enough services in this area, and people slip through the cracks,” said the Rev. Winnie Varghese of St. Mark’s.

After a previous relationship with Trader Joe’s ended in late 2009 due to rising costs on the supermarket’s side, Ms. Varghese partnered up with GreenMarket last year and they agreed to donate any remaining produce from the farmer’s market that they hold in the church square on Tuesdays. The food pantry at St. Mark’s will run every Wednesday at 6 p.m. and they hope to continue it through the winter if funding allows.
Read more…

On 7th Street, LGBT Youth Find New Alternatives

AlternativeSpringBreak-05Jim Hohl A group of university students on an alternative spring break, volunteering with New Alternatives, with some of the organization’s LGBT homeless youth.

Robert Smith, 24, describes his childhood as magical. Growing up in Myrtle Beach, S.C., Mr. Smith had everything a child could ever ask for — European vacations, the latest gadgets and even a hefty trust fund.

“I was a platinum-spooned, spoiled rotten trust fund baby,” said Mr. Smith with a grin. “Anything that someone could possible want, I had.”

But when Mr. Smith turned 19, that all changed. After coming out to his family, his grandmother cut him off financially, removing him from her will because she would no longer support his lifestyle. After spending several years moving around the south, Mr. Smith, who had just been kicked out of his older brother’s apartment, booked a flight and headed to New York.

“After paying for the flight and my hostel stay, I only had $55 in my pocket,” said Mr. Smith. “When I couldn’t afford the hostel anymore, I went to the Street Works Project and stayed in their emergency beds for about a week. From there, I went to Sylvia’s Place for three weeks before heading to Trinity Place Shelter for a year, where I attended the Back to Work Program and got my life together.”

Mr. Smith is now the executive assistant to the chief operating officer at a computer analyst company, and it’s a title he says with pride. But there’s another organization that he credits for his success — New Alternatives for LGBT Homeless Youth.
Read more…

East Village Tweets

the public phone booth of 2011Michelle Rick

Would-be messages from the East Village, in 140 characters or less.

First Steps Toward Marriage

The 1st time they met, she listened. The 2nd, she spoke.
The 3rd, they crossed swords over Sushi, & fought until
their chopsticks broke

Welcome to the Three-Day Week

Monday to recover, Friday to prepare. Then comes the
Insanely Unseemly Weekend – leaving only Tuesday,
Wednesday, Thursday, there

Maids Gone Wild

Bar maids & chamber maids, old maids & French maids,
going on drink-raids, jumping on beds made, dancing
like demons in a big hotel
Read more…

Grace: A Life of Broken Promises

IMG_5359Greg Howard A candle burns in a makeshift alcove where Grace Farrell died Feb. 20.

Twelve days ago, the frozen body of my childhood friend Grace Farrell was found on a few sheets of cardboard in an alcove at St. Brigid’s Catholic Church on Avenue B in the East Village. It was a tragic end to a sad and troubled life.

Mary Grace Farrell came into my life when she was barely seven years old and I was 16. I grew up in Saint Vincent’s, a children’s home run by the Daughters of Charity in Drogheda, Ireland, and it was there that Grace spent three relatively happy years.

Grace was a beautiful and engaging child with a bright, sunny disposition. She was warm and affectionate and full of fun. She smiled often and loved to laugh, deeply. In many respects she was a normal child, though her early years were anything but.

Being born to a young, unmarried couple in 1970’s Ireland would make for a difficult life. Grace’s mother, realizing this, faced a Solomon’s choice of sorts. She could keep her baby and face that lonely and uncertain road together or she could give her up for adoption in the hope of a better chance. She bravely chose the latter path.
Read more…