Volume 17 • Issue 27 | Nov. 26 - Dec. 02, 2004

Photo by Karl Crutchfield

Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields was one of the volunteers who poured coffee at an early Thanksgiving dinner at the New York City Rescue Mission at Lafayette St. on Monday.

A Mission beyond Thanksgiving

By Hemmy So

Chef Hezekiah Allan tiredly sipped his bowl of instant noodles on Wednesday after serving up a lunch of tuna loaf, mashed potatoes and cooked peas to the forty or so residents, volunteers and staff workers at the New York City Rescue Mission. Preparing big meals is nothing new to the stout, bald veteran chef, who spent 15 years at a similar organization, Project Create.

On Sunday, he tackled 200 pounds of turkey, 150 pounds of stuffing, 125 pounds of yams and five giant cases of fresh green beans at the Mission’s kitchen for its Great Thanksgiving Feast for about 1,500 low-income and homeless people expected on Monday. About100 volunteers helped out at the Mission’s 90 Lafayette building. Finding volunteers for the banquet-style dinner was easy as, well, pumpkin pie.

“We had over 100 volunteer opportunities and they got filled. They filled the first week of November,” Natalie Koch, the group’s volunteer coordinator said last week. “Today I probably had 15 people call and say, ‘Can I volunteer on Thanksgiving Day?’ I had to offer them other opportunities.”

Because N.Y.C.R.M. is a Christian-based organization, church groups dominate the volunteer roster. Many come from out of state, splitting time between work at the Mission and sightseeing around town. But other groups have also offered support and manpower. Executive director James VarnHagen mentioned that a Jewish organization sponsors an annual coat drive, and the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, with many Chinese Buddhist members, has also contributed by serving an evening meal at the Mission. Wall St. firms also encourage their employees to donate time.

“We have a good relationship with different religious and ethnic groups. They’re happy with what they see here,” VarnHagen said.

While volunteers help out with the soup kitchen and maintenance projects, everyday chores are handled by the Mission’s 30 residents. These men comprise a distinct and separate group from the 70 other homeless men who sleep at the shelter. On average, each night eight or nine men come to the Rescue Mission for the first time. Broken by life’s difficulties and often times debilitating drug or alcohol addictions, these men are trying to escape a downward spiral by committing themselves to the Mission.

Residents of the Long-Term Recovery Program follow a 12-step program that emphasizes Christian spiritual growth and responsibility. One step, for example, stresses the importance of truth.

“We talk to people about truth, to be truthful to themselves. Often people are in denial. They haven’t been truthful to their employer, they haven’t been truthful to their family members,” VarnHagen explained. “No matter what religion you are, you still have to be truthful in life.”

VarnHagen exudes warmth and kindness when speaking, helped by his fatherly demeanor and white hair. He openly acknowledges and embraces the faith-based nature of the Mission but emphasizes that no one twists anybody’s arm into accepting Christianity. He did say a survey one day in 2002 showed that 83 percent of the total homeless at the Mission prefer a spiritual emphasis in their recovery.

Certainly 42 year-old Mario Ayala agrees, though he’s hesitant to call himself a Christian just yet. A resident for almost three weeks, Ayala decided to join the recovery program after years of excessive drinking, bad relationships and lost jobs.

“As time went on, my life kept going up and down, up and down, up and down,” he said ruefully. “This last year has been especially bad with finances. I needed to make a change and I don’t know what it was, I still don’t know what it is. I just knew I needed to do something for someone else and not be selfish anymore.”

Of Caribbean descent, the dreadlocked resident grew up in the old Lincoln Houses in the Bronx. His childhood fits well into the general description offered by the N.Y.C.R.M. brochure of men who enter its halls – “we often learn that their childhoods were characterized by family misery, neglect and abuse, leading them to make mistakes in life that ultimately broke their spirits.” One of Ayala’s seven siblings suffered from a serious drug problem, and one of his sisters had a child at an early age. In talking about past mistakes, he also admitted that he started having sex at age 13 and got another 13 year-old pregnant.

Fellow recovery program member William Morton also fits that generic description. Now 50, Morton began drinking at age five without a mother or father to watch over him. His adoptive mother told him he was born out of wedlock and his birth mother gave him up for adoption while keeping her other 12 children. Morton suffered from depression and low self-esteem.

He lived most of his life in Brooklyn and left his Coney Island home six years ago, roaming around Manhattan and the Bronx before landing in a long-term recovery program in 1999. After moving from program to program, Morton finally ended up at N.Y.C.R.M. last April.

A shy fellow, Morton doesn’t easily express his emotions through his voice or facial expressions. But when talking about his disappointment in the other programs he’s attended, his frustration became clearer with every syllable uttered. For him, he explained, other programs just showed people how to attend Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings but not much else.

At the Mission, however, Morton felt that spiritual growth and guidance anchored his recovery. “This gives strength. I’m getting closer to God,” he said.

Now that he is nearly completed the program, Morton will begin searching for work. He credits the Mission for improving his level of education, which he described as “not a proper education.” A high school graduate forced out of the public school system because he became too old to stay, Morton left with only meager reading, writing and math skills. Now, he works with four tutors in those areas.

“To me, I read better [now] than I usually did because I didn’t give myself a chance,” he said.

In addition to tutoring, the Mission provides computer training. Residents can earn certification in Microsoft Office, and they also learn about the Internet and computer hardware. In the small computer room on the first floor, seven black Dell computers line the walls and a dismantled hard drive rests on the floor by the door after a recent session on the computer components.

While many of the homeless at N.Y.C.R.M. seek to improve their educations, many already have college and even post-graduate educations. According to a survey conducted in 2000, four percent of the homeless population that had stayed at N.Y.C.R.M. had college degrees and four percent also had advanced degrees.

Staff member and former resident Martin Bowman earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania and later received an M.B.A. from Columbia University as well as a master’s degree in architecture. He came to the Mission in March 2000 and stayed for about 18 months. Having worked for the city during the 1980s as a supervising architect, Bowman got caught up in what he described as the former rampant drug culture of city employees. Spending all his money to feed his drug habit, Bowman eventually lost his job, wife and home.

Bowman speaks at a rapid clip, excitedly speaking on issues weighing on his mind. He wanted to make clear that men who come to the Mission aren’t always uneducated vagrants who can’t hold down a job. Many people, he said, have jobs and steady incomes but simply make bad decisions.

Forgetting about his warm plate of lunch in front of him, Bowman also started speaking about his concerns regarding the Mission’s future. With gentrification hitting so many parts of the city, including the squeeze of area between Tribeca and Chinatown that N.Y.C.R.M. occupies, Bowman wondered how long the rescue mission would survive in its present location.

“They’re rule-booking us to death,” he said, referring to a process by which city officials enforce strict interpretations of building and food codes. “They’re using standards for the Four Seasons on us, who serve homeless people,” he remarked. Bowman believes that the crackdown is prompted by local real estate companies and residents who don’t want the sight of homeless people waiting for food and shelter to ruin their otherwise pristine and expensive neighborhood.

Bowman thinks the Mission may have better luck in another borough. A move out of Manhattan has also crossed VarnHagen’s mind. Though the Mission has received permission to add three more floors to its facilities, VarnHagen said finding a larger building elsewhere may end up costing less. The decision to stay or go will likely be made within the next 3 - 5 years.

A move would be the second in its 132-year history. Established by Jerry and Maria McAuley in 1872 as a “helping hand to homeless men on hardscrabble Water Street near the old Five Points area,” N.Y.C.R.M. moved to its Lafayette location in the 1950s. Prior to the Mission, the building served as a giant cafeteria for employees working at the various machine tool companies located in the area. Throughout its history, N.Y.C.R.M. has paid great tribute to its founding father, whose portrait hangs in the lobby. Undoubtedly that’s because Jerry McAuley fits the rescue mission profile – a “rogue and street thief” who spent time in Sing Sing prison during the 1860s before finding God.

If the Mission does decide to move its main services elsewhere, it will not completely abandon its present location. Instead, VarnHagen said they would keep administrative offices there and perhaps start a program for homeless women and children, a population currently served only by the Mission’s soup kitchen and food pantry.

The Mission only provides shelter and recovery to men largely because the physical facilities demand close quarters and open showers. Spartan bunk beds fill each dormitory level with only about a foot and a half separating them. The second floor houses the residents, with a separate room for four beds used by those finishing the program and looking for work. The residents’ dormitory is clean and neat, with each bed smoothly made. A small stuffed leopard doll guards one of the bunks while another displays a hardcover tome entitled “Vietnam: A History.” Hardly a surprising read, considering that 21 percent of the Mission’s homeless are veterans. Of that percentage, 60 percent served in Vietnam.

The third floor dormitory is much larger, with a more prominent institutional feeling. Upon entering, homeless men are required to take a bar of soap, disrobe, shower and wear house pajamas before heading to bed. By the time the “transients” have entered the large, dimly lit room, resident have already prepped the room with freshly washed sheets and towels. First-timers are guaranteed a bed for seven nights, while repeat visitors must enter the bed lottery or sign up on a waiting list. VarnHagen estimates that each night brings around 8 or 9 new guests.

The brown ceiling obviously needs repair from water damage and a fresh paint job, both tasks funded or provided by volunteers. About 80 percent of the Mission’s funding comes from individual donations, and organized groups like churches and foundations provide another 16 percent. The rest is covered by government funding limited to food purchases. Like many non-profit groups, N.Y.C.R.M. could always use more funding, particularly if it hopes to stay in Manhattan.

More volunteers are also welcome, said Koch, who is herself a full-time volunteer. In particular, N.Y.C.R.M. needs volunteers to work in the administrative offices at 299 Broadway and the soup kitchen at the main facility during business hours.

Stephanie Kinloch, a nursing student at N.Y.U. from Queens, spends two mornings a week at the Mission, helping out wherever she’s needed. Discovering N.Y.C.R.M. from a local television news report, Kinloch began volunteering in September. While she’s comfortable completing any task, her favorite has surprisingly turned out to be answering the phones.

“I’m surprised to see how many people in New York giving, who are concerned,” she said. “A lot of people in New York volunteer and have their family involved, and I think that’s great.”

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