I remember last spring a pair of visitors from Germany wanted to see homeless people huddled over a fire burning in a garbage can to keep warm. After my eyes widened and I laughed, I let them know that image of New York they were fed isn't the reality anymore.
And while there's no more skid row here in NY, The Bowery Mission, on the Bowery which was New York's skid row, still provides services to the homeless and people in need. This week, I worked with a client whose interest was in criminal law and social services provided to New Yorkers. I took her to The Bowery Mission as part of her immersion.
Upon entering The Bowery Mission it was immediately apparent we'd arrived at a busy time. We spoke to a resident assigned to the front desk and directed to the Operations Manager, Bill Johnson. While he directed visitors and residents alike, he said it'd be a few minutes before he'd be able to talk with us but asked if we'd like lunch.
I was shocked and humbled. I deferred the decision to my client whether or not we'd eat or not. So there we were on the line, picking up our trays, being served brown rice, chili, salad, a roll or banana or both, a drink... and a smile. All the while everyone was so welcoming with kind words. We sat in the dining room at a table with 2 older Chinese women. They didn't speak a word of English but they gestured to us that the drink wasn't to their liking but they really loved the rice and chili. A third woman joined them only briefly to pack up her lunch to take home.
I ate slowly -- I was busy looking around the room at people I was having lunch with, and although the food was good, I felt bad for eating it. I didn't want to take it from someone who needed it. And that was what was so sobering. The room was full of people you could see relied on the meal but also many who on first look didn't appear to need the help. That's a fact Matt Krivich, Assistant Director of The Bowery Mission explained to us. Over the years, he's seen a shift in demographics in the people who come to The Bowery Mission. More women and children and more people who may not be homeless but as he put it, they have a home, a refrigerator and cupboards but they're empty.
In the time it took Matt to explain the work done at The Bowery Mission and tell us his personal story on how he got where he is today, 6 people had come and gone from our table. Meals are served three times a day, 7 days a week at The Bowery Mission. The kitchen staff gets started at 5 AM and doesn't stop until 9 PM. Come nightfall, the tables in the dining hall are pushed to the back of the room to make room for people who need a place to sleep for the night. It may be for the lone woman who needs shelter (The Bowery Mission on the only houses men but they have a women's residence on the UES) or it's for the 100+ people who need a warm place to sleep. With the snow and the frigid temperatures we've had this winter in New York, Matt explained they've had over 200 people need shelter at night.
The chapel was packed when we started the tour. The pews are pushed to the front and mats are spread out at night for people to sleep. Some even sleep on the stage. Matt also toured us through the kitchen and the pantry. The Bowery Mission receives donations from Whole Foods Market, City Harvest, Food Bank for New York City and chefs and staff from The General prepares and serves dinner twice a month. I was pleased to hear that the newest additions to the neighborhood were doing their part. Monetary, food and clothing donations are also received from individuals.
We met up with Bill again and he gave us a tour of the rest of The Bowery Mission -- the counselors offices, the living quarters -- 40 men who are in the program are housed for a year and there are 20 beds for short-term shelter for someone not yet a resident. Bill also showed us the computer lab, the study room and the conference room that doubles as the clinic where doctors provide free medical services. Tuesday was shower day so we didn't tour that area. But we were invited to come back when the weather is warmer to view their rooftop garden.
Tuesday began as a snowing and cloudy day. When my client and I walked out of The Bowery Mission, the sun was shining. The symbolism wasn't lost on us. It was quite the sobering stop on the excursion but it was also encouraging in some ways. Thousands of people have passed through those red doors and have turned their lives around since 1879, including Matt and Bill. As long as there are people in need, I hope The Bowery Mission will get the help they need to help those in need.
* * *