Lynn: Hunger and Homelessness in the Land of Plenty

Owning a dog widened my social circles considerably. For instance, I would never have met Jimmy, of “Man in a Van” fame. Jimmy lives with his two dogs in a van which is parked in the West Village most of the time. (1) A hoarder without a home, he drags his treasures back to accumulate in, under and on top of the van. (If you have seen the van you will remember it.) Jimmy gets by on a small check from SSI, and income from occasional odd jobs. He also sporadically sells things he finds and/or fixes. However, he is often penniless. (2) Jimmy is one of about 10 homeless people living on the streets and sidewalks in our lovely neighborhood where rents are staggering and conspicuous consumption glares from the windows of high-end neighborhood shops and restaurants.

Photo: Matthew Porter

Photo: Matthew Porter

Jimmy grew up on Leroy St. He is the last of his family here since all the elders have died and their children, except for Jimmy, have moved away. He talks about moving to Pennsylvania, to “the country,” but his roots are still firmly grounded here. Beside the old friends who remain, here he knows where to get food, take a shower, use a toilet, and many other commonplace but necessary things that we who have homes take for granted.

Some people call him a “junk man” because he is always finding things and most of it is junk. Sometimes it’s a treasure. For the two decades, that I have known him, he has always had something he wants to show me. One day it was a box of meat from a supermarket in the neighborhood. Tommy, another homeless man, had found the meat thrown in a large trash bin outside Dagostino’s supermarket. The “street” price was $20 for about $80 worth of meat. I bought it.

As an animal lover and longtime animal activist, I work to keep eggs, dairy and meat out of my diet as buying these creates a demand that keeps the factory farms and slaughterhouses in business.(3) This is not easy as the American diet is based on animal products. As eating is a social activity and most restaurants have few vegan choices, maintaining veganism is an ongoing battle for me. At the time, I was facing a moral conundrum: how can I justify rescuing a dog if that means that 150 chickens and other animals must die yearly for my dog to live? But here was a solution and so I became a “freegan.” Wikipedia explains:

Freeganism is the practice of reclaiming and eating food that has been discarded. Freegans and Freeganism are often seen as part of a wider “anti-consumerist” ideology, and freegans often employ a range of alternative living strategies based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.

Over a two year period during which I regularly went bin-diving at Dagostino’s, I met a freegan subculture. These were people who, to varying degrees, live off the land right here in the big city. Some of the freegans are homeless, others live financially secure lives. One was a French Chef. Another is a single parent of three, who lives off the rent from properties that he owns. No matter our financial circumstances, our little group of freegans all thought that throwing out good food was wrong. In the evening, when most people were asleep in their beds, I would meet Jim and we’d go through the bins at Dags.

Contributing to the problem for the homeless and the rest of us non-millionaires in the neighborhood is that there are no inexpensive eateries in the West Village where shop rents are astronomical and necessary venues such as laundry mats have disappeared. For instance, there are no regular pizza places and our local falafel shop (under $4 for a falafel) suddenly left because their rent increase was too high for them to make a profit.

Approximately ½ a mile away from me is Souen, which has delicious, healthy and inexpensive food, the only restaurant with these three qualities in both Greenwich & the West villages. (There is another health food restaurant but it is expensive.) We do have a wealth of health food stores, with three good ones not more than 10 blocks away. These health food restaurants and stores are not where the neighborhood’s homeless eat or shop.

Ed, 65 years old and another man living in a van, doesn’t believe the organic labeling. Instead he says that it is the same food as the non-organic. “It is pseudo-science!” “I am not going to pay $3 for a quart of milk that comes from the same cows!’ “I am a Walmart man!” Jimmy doesn’t eat organic food either: “Less than 1%, though it is good if you can afford it.”

Jimmy’s dog walks are also scouting adventures, especially on recycling days. Not only does he find food and anything one could think of, he is a dedicated recycler, often picking up bottles and metal from the street to recycle. After Christmas, when so many people in the neighborhood throw out their tree with the decorations still on, Jimmy takes off the decorations so that the trees can be chipped. The tree stand is recycled. The decorations go to the thrift shop (where he is well known.) If more people did this the planet would not be as desecrated as it is.

I fed my dogs on meat from the bins, often finding organic chicken, pork, beef, and Cornish hens. (The dogs loved this destination as they knew where their dinner was coming from and often got scraps while we were there.) One year during the holidays, I found four large turkeys and two large hams. These factory raised animals led torturous lives and deaths only to wind up in the trash. (4)

Going to the bins was like going on a treasure hunt, as not only did I feed my household from them, but I was often able to provide five neighborhood elders with hundreds of dollars’ worth of food for free. Most things in the supermarket, even fresh veggies, fruit, flowers, eggs, milk, butter, cheese, yogurt, and deserts were found in the bins on various days and 80% had not yet reached its expiration date.

The amount of waste here is staggering. Many nights I came home with a large shopping cart overflowing with food. And there were a quite a few of us doing this. This is just one supermarket in a country full of supermarkets, discarding huge amounts of good food each day. The waste of so much food in the face of hunger is a failure of our acquisitive, “throwaway” society where the mindset is: “if you don’t pay a lot for something, it is not really valuable.” This is insanity when so many are facing hunger on a daily basis. (5)

The freegan lifestyle helped me break out of our cultural bourgeois consciousness. For example, on a scale from one to ten, how mortifying is it to be seen by your neighbors, community board members, etc. bin diving at Dagostino’s? Also, when my sister (who still frequents our favorite shops in Rome and Paris) complimented me on my designer “bucket bag” and asked where I got it, I told her the truth: “In the garbage pail on the corner.” And while I do not make it a habit to go through the garbage, (still too bourgeois I guess) in the spirit of sustainability, except for incidentals, I try to only buy from thrift stores and do not buy fur, leather or silk. I only buy plastic when no other option is available.

Our little Dag club came to an abrupt end when an antisocial homeless man also living in the neighborhood, claimed the bins for himself. When any of us went to get something in the bin he knocked our hands away and threatened to kill us and our dogs. Consequently for the last two years all that food and animal suffering (from the meat thrown out) have been wasted. This man lives a life of isolation and anger on the sidewalk where he builds a “fort” for himself out of empty bottles, cans and other items and is constantly harassed by the police.

That is when Jimmy discovered “God’s Love!” God’s Love We Deliver’s mission is to “prepare and deliver nutritious, high-quality meals to people who, because of their illness, are unable to provide or prepare meals for themselves.”(6) God’s Love often dropped off dozens of packaged meals loaded into black plastic garbage bags, and left them in city garbage cans a few blocks from Jimmy’s van.

So, for a while everyone was getting God’s Love (including the dogs.) God’s Love is in transition while waiting for new downtown digs and has moved to Brooklyn (7) so there has been no God’s Love here lately. God’s Love provides a vital service but their food, described as “high quality,” is not organic and so is likely overly processed: herbicided, pesticided, irradiated, waxed, dyed, prepared for /microwaved, homogenized, etc. Also, the Center for Food Safety estimates that “upwards of 75% of processed foods on supermarket shelves – from soda to soup, crackers to condiments – contain genetically engineered ingredients.” (8)

Additionally, at the end of his shift, the vendor at the coffee kiosk around the corner from Jimmy gives him the left over bagels, pastry and hard boiled eggs. While white flour and sugar pastries are not a good dietary habit, it stops hunger pangs and encourages people to stop by Jimmy’s van where there is often something to eat. Jimmy’s van is where I met more of the neighborhood’s homeless. Some of the homeless are transient with only 10 or so homeless people permanently living in this community. These are very complicated people who, for various reasons, just don’t function well in our (crazy) society. For instance, if Jimmy has an appointment you can bet that he will be anywhere else except where he supposed to be at the time he agreed to be there.

Jimmy, who gets food stamps but has nowhere to cook, also acquires food by taking the leftovers from the local senior program at Our Lady of Pompeii Church. I interviewed Sandy Gabin, Director of the Senior Center (25 Carmine Street), a Greenwich House Caring Community at Our Lady of Pompeii. The center is funded by the Department of Aging and feeds, and provides activities such as bingo, sing-a-longs, chair yoga, and current events, for between 60 and 80 seniors a day (M-F, 9 – 5). Sandy explains that most of the young seniors (60s) have jobs (“it’s hard to retire these days”) but the majority of the people benefiting from this program are in their 80s.

These are the last of the “originals” whose families came to settle in Greenwich Village generations ago. They have held on to their customs and history but they are a dying breed as there is no one left and no forum in which to pass on these customs. They are proud people. So proud, that in spite of isolation and hunger, Sandy says, “some people won’t come into the center because they think it is a charity.”

Sandy, who has worked 25 years in senior care and has a 91 year old mother living with her, described her seniors as 90% republican. They do not complain, stay away from authority and are very culture-oriented. Sandy explains that 25% – 30% live below the poverty level and most are alone. Here at the center, they form an extended family and look out for each other – “Have you seen so and so? “I haven’t seen them all week.” She has learned to watch for changes such as “boredom in your people, or wearing the same clothes.”

Sandy tells me that the grandparents of these elders worked with Mother Cabrini to help establish St Vincent’s Hospital. Years later it was St Vincent’s that asked the churches to begin senior care programs and that is how the Caring Community began. Seniors and the homeless also go to the Caring Community at Greenwich House (27 Barrow St at 7th Ave.) where they serve both breakfast and lunch. The Senior Center on the Square, also run by the Caring Community, at 20 Washington Square North, also serves weekday lunch.

On Saturdays there are two soup kitchens in the village, one at St Joseph’s church, Washington Place and 6th Ave., and at the Church of the Village, 13 Street and 7th Ave, where they serve hot food to whoever comes. Part of the Church of the Village’s food Ministry is Daisy’s Food Pantry on Tuesday afternoons where they distribute bags of groceries to individuals and families in need.

Jimmy and his homeless friends eat at these places, often standing on line to wait for food. Since the program at Pompeii changed its subcontractor (meals are delivered daily), people love the food. Seniors are eligible for the meals at $1.50 per meal but Sandy says the people do not want to pay that much so she is only charging a dollar. She makes up the rest by selling clothes at the thrift shop she has set up in the church basement. She also clothes people in need from the clothing donations.

These food programs are not food “banks” in that they do not store food. Neither are they growing food in any way. In case of emergencies, which happen regularly here in downtown Manhattan (911, hurricane Sandy), if trucks are not able to deliver, there will be no food or water here after a few days.

This way of life is in stark contrast to those who have recently moved into the “new” village. For instance, two blocks west of Jimmy’s van is One Morton Square, a “full service” residence. Services include a 24-hour doorman, professional concierge, a private state-of-the art health and fitness center, a fully equipped children’s play room and an on-site attended parking garage. The $200 million development has 283 apartments. For condos, a 3,644 ft2 4 beds 4.5 baths sells for $9,500,000 and to rent a 4,090 ft2 4 beds 4.5 baths will cost $28,750 monthly.

One Morton Sq.

One Morton Sq.

The Abingdon

The Abingdon

Included in the trend of building luxury residences in the village is the Abingdon, remodeled from the former 200-room neighborhood nursing home. That the Village Nursing Home once housed 200 women but will now accommodate just 10 households illustrates the change in village living. From the Abingdon webpage:

…prices ranging as high as $31 million. The west mansion was the largest and most expensive space in the building, spanning 9,600 square feet on three floors (it includes basement space, as well). It carried an asking price of $25 million. The penthouse facing the Hudson River cost $21.5 million, while the other was turned into a triplex by the buyer, who combined the $19.5 million penthouse with a $10.5 million unit below, creating an 8,550-square-foot pad. The simplexes cost between $8.75 million and $10.75 million. (9)

Generations of neighborhood people visited their elderly family members and friends in the old Village Nursing home. Now, the homeless and those who eat at the Caring Community are not allowed the same solace at the end of their life. Their friends and family will need to travel out of the neighborhood to visit them in a nursing home which means that there might not be daily or even weekly visits. The development of the Abingdon has drawn ridicule in the press and other community forums. Why should the welfare of thousands of dying people get in the way of the luxurious life for 10 families if there is money to be made!?!

Not only have we lost our nursing home, we have also lost our only hospital to luxury housing. The spot where St. Vincent’s used to be now has The Greenwich lane, described on its sale website as:

“…individually crafted with high-end, state-of-the-art, luxury living in mind. Many of the residences throughout have private outdoor spaces, and they all come together to surround one lush central garden, a quiet oasis in the style of historic village greens. The garden is just one of a staggering array of private amenities, all presented at a level of discretion unheard of in most West Village residences. 200 units.”

The Greenwich Lane gardens

The Greenwich Lane gardens

The loss of our hospital leaves downtown Manhattanites in a  death lurch. (10) St. Vincent’s, founded in 1849 as a charity hospital, served the immigrant poor and homeless. It served my Italian family for five generations (my son was born there and we all went to its ER). It is gone.

The new “Urgent Care” facility that the community has been promised to replace St. Vincent’s Hospital will not be able to help with heart attacks and stroke emergencies. Fred Mogul, reporter with WNYC News, writes:

Many community activists, including Eileen Dunn, are disappointed that the facility would have no inpatient beds and would no longer be a full-fledged trauma center. (Will not be equipped to handle all emergencies and surgery cannot be performed.) “If anybody was in cardiac arrest or having a stroke, they would not go to this urgent care center, they would go to a real hospital,” Dunn said. “People will go there and have to be transferred across town or uptown to a full-service hospital.”(11)

For the neighborhood, including the 1% living in these new village luxury buildings, not having a full-fledged emergency room close by makes surviving heart attacks and strokes much less likely. People are dying because of the times it takes to cover the distance to a hospital outside of the neighborhood combined with traffic at busy times of the day. One evening on Bleecker St., an ambulance, with lights and sirens blasting, was stuck behind traffic at the Carmine St. stoplight. Jimmy ran to the first car, banged on its hood and yelled “Pull over! Pull over!” All the stopped cars then pulled off to the side and the ambulance continued east down Bleecker St (probably to Beth Israel.) When I commended Jimmy’s action to help the person in the ambulance Jimmy replied: “It could have been one of my friends in the ambulance.”

In addition, St. Vincent’s was one fo New York City’s most prominent safety-net hospitals, serving mostly those either on Medicaid or Medicare or without insurance. It was also known as a refuge for the homeless. It has principally been these patients, then, who have been hit the hardest by St. Vincent’s closing and by the shutting of other hospitals elsewhere in the city. (12)

Sir Charles Sherrington, in Man on His Nature, wrote in 1940: “Nature, often as she hugs the old, seems seldom or never to revert to a past once abandoned. Evolution can scrap but not revive.”

Developers and the people who buy these uber luxury apartments have shattered what took generations of effort to create. Villagers worked hard to build St Vincent’s in order to enhance their, their descendants and their neighbor’s lives. They worked to keep crime down, create parks, keep the streets flowing and clean and to keep the true character of the village, but they have no way to benefit from the wealth creation that has destroyed their way of life besides selling their lease and moving away. The generations to follow will not know the same village and few will be able to afford to live here.

The neighborhood also has no food security at present. What would happen if we had two hurricanes back to back, for instance, or the “grid came down” and Manhattan and the village were without food and water for more than a few days? The issue of food and water sustainability and security needs to be addressed in community forums.

Creating food banks and even urban farms would be difficult here as there is little available real-estate. Our few and small manicured parks have very little space even for grass. A group attempted to put an urban farm in the new park along the Hudson River as a school program but it never happened. Not even if we planted on every roof would we be able to feed everyone here during a crisis but it would help raise sustainability awareness.

The CB2 Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) has, I assume, disbanded as I cannot find it, or anyone who knows about it, anywhere. At this point it is up to the individual to keep extra food and water in case of emergency. (13) For instance, beside canned foods, a great form of protein can be found in beans and sprouted seeds and they don’t go bad. (14) To sign up for training with the Citizen Preparedness Corps go to: http://www.prepare.ny.gov/.

Hopefully the emergency will not last long as finding extra closet or pantry storage space in NYC apartments is so difficult that people only keep a little food and water stored if at all. To help the individual be better food prepared, the Red Cross has put together advice for emergencies. (15)

In the meantime, we, the old timers here in the neighborhood, including the homeless, carry on, living according to our conscience. In the event of a shortage of food and water in a crisis should the new, wealthy residents of the village not be able to buy their way out of it or leave, my bet would be on the homeless to survive. It is already their reality, after all.

 

1. http://www.geek.com/news/man-lives-in-van-in-nyc-gets-his-own-documentary-884092/

2. http://nymag.com/nymetro/news/people/columns/intelligencer/10125/.

3. http://www.eatlikeyoucarebook.com/

4. http://www.meatvideo.com/

5. http://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/1-5-new-yorkers-rely-charities-food-article-1.1723671.

  1. https://www.glwd.org/about/mission.jsp;jsessionid=4F6E729B4A559BF96E6C59DDD851E73A

7. http://commercialobserver.com/2013/09/gods-love-takes-temp-space-in-brooklyn/

8. http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/issues/311/ge-foods/about-ge-foods.

9. http://www.crainsnewyork.com/article/20130228/REAL_ESTATE/130229862/village-nursing-home-sells-out-as-condo. Crain’s, 2.28.13, para 3.

10. http://www.kevinmd.com/blog/2010/05/st-vincents-hospital-closes-greenwich-village-suffers.html, St. Vincent’s Hospital closes, and Greenwich Village suffers, Danielle Ofri, MD, PhD, May 25, 2010.

11. http://www.wnyc.org/story/117797-blog-st-vincents-complex-sold-landmark-building-house-new-er-and-more/, 3.10.2011.

12. http://www.gothamgazette.com/index.php/health/789-st-vincents-highlights-crunch-for-hospitals-serving-the-poor, St. Vincent’s Highlights Crunch for Hospitals Serving the Poor, Vicky Plestis, Jul 20, 2011.

13. http://disaster.nlm.nih.gov/dimrc/communitypreparedness.html.

14. http://sproutpeople.org/growing-sprouts/sprouting-instructions/.

15. http://www.redcross.org/prepare/disaster/food-safety

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