On hunger and homelessness in the land of plenty
BY LYNN PACIFICO | 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 parked in the West Village.
A hoarder without a home, he drags his treasures back to accumulate in, under and on top of the van. Jimmy, 62, gets by on a small S.S.I. check and income from occasional odd jobs. He also sells things he finds and fixes, but is often penniless. He is one of about 10 homeless people living in our lovely neighborhood where rents are staggering and conspicuous consumption glares from shop windows.
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. In the Village, he has many old friends and he knows where to get food, take a shower, find a toilet and many other commonplace but necessary things that we who have homes take for granted.
Jimmy’s dog walks are scouting excursions, 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. And after Christmas, when people in the neighborhood throw out their trees with the decorations still on them, Jimmy takes off the ornaments so that the trees can be chipped. The tree stands are recycled. The decorations go to the thrift shop.
People call him a “junk man” because most of what he finds is junk. He always has something he wants to show me. One day, it was a box of meat. A transient homeless man had found it in trash bins outside a supermarket. The “street price” was $20 for about $80 worth of meat. I bought it.
As an animal lover, I generally keep eggs, dairy and meat out of my diet since buying these creates the demand that sustains factory farms and slaughterhouses.
And as a person who works to rescue animals, I face a moral conundrum: How can I justify rescuing a dog if that means that 100 chickens and other animals must die yearly — to be made into dog food — 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 the two-year period I was bin-diving I met a freegan subculture. These people, to varying degrees, “live off the land” right here in the big city. Some freegans are homeless, others live financially secure lives. One was a French chef. Another was a single parent of three, who lives off the rent from properties that he owns. No matter our circumstances, our little group of freegans all thought that throwing out good food was wrong. In the evening, when most people were asleep, we’d meet at the trash bins.
I found organic chicken, pork, beef and Cornish hens, and was able to provide three neighborhood seniors with hundreds of dollars worth of free food each month. Most things one finds in the supermarket were also found in the bins on various days, and 80 percent had not yet reached the expiration date. 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.
Most nights I came home with a large shopping cart overflowing with food. There were others doing the same from just this one supermarket in a country full of supermarkets, which are all discarding huge amounts of good food each day. The food waste is staggering and a failure of our acquisitive, “throwaway” society where so many people face hunger on a daily basis.
The freegan lifestyle helped me break out of my bourgeois cultural consciousness. For example, how mortifying is it to be seen by your neighbors, community board members, etc. bin-diving?
But our little freegan club came to an abrupt end when an antisocial homeless man claimed the bins for himself. When we 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 discarded meat) have been wasted. This man, who accepts help from no one, 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 he picks up from the trash.
That’s when Jimmy discovered God’s Love We Deliver. God’s Love’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.” The extra God’s Love food (fresh and frozen packaged meals) was often dumped in black plastic garbage bags in city garbage cans near Jimmy’s van. So, for a while everyone was getting God’s Love. God’s Love is currently waiting for its Soho space at Spring St. to be rebuilt and enlarged and has temporarily moved to Brooklyn, so there has been no God’s Love here lately.
Adding to Jimmy’s food choices, the vendor at a coffee kiosk gives him the leftover bagels, pastry and hardboiled eggs. The pastries encourage people to stop by Jimmy’s van, where there is often something to eat. Here is where I met more of the neighborhood’s homeless. These are very complicated people, who, for various reasons, just don’t function well in our (crazy) society. For example, if Jimmy has an appointment, you can bet that he will be anywhere else except where he is supposed to be at the time he agreed to be there.
Jimmy, who gets food stamps but has nowhere to cook, also acquires nourishment by taking the leftovers from the local senior program at Our Lady of Pompeii Church, on Carmine St. I interviewed Sandy Gabin, director of the senior center, the Greenwich House Caring Community at Our Lady of Pompeii. The center is funded by the Department of Aging and provides meals and activities, such as bingo, sing-alongs, chair yoga and current events, for between 60 and 80 seniors a day, Monday to Friday, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Sandy explained that most of the young seniors, in their 60s, have jobs — “It’s hard to retire these days,” she noted — 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, and who have held on to their customs and history. They are a proud people. So proud that, in spite of isolation and hunger, Sandy said, “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 lives with her 85-year-old mother, said her seniors do not complain, avoid authority and are very oriented toward their culture. She said 25 to 30 percent of them 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.” Sandy has learned to watch for changes, such as “boredom in your people, or wearing the same clothes.”
Seniors are eligible to get the meals for $1.50, but Sandy said the people don’t want to pay that much, so she only charges 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 garments that are donated.
Sandy told 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. (The Caring Community programs are now run by Greenwich House.) Seniors and the homeless also go to Greenwich House, at 27 Barrow St. at Seventh Ave., where they are served both breakfast and lunch. The Senior Center on the Square, also run by Greenwich House, at 20 Washington Square North, serves weekday lunch.
On Saturdays, there are two soup kitchens in the Village, one at St Joseph’s Church, at Washington Place and Sixth Ave., and the other at the Church of the Village, at 13th St. and Seventh Ave., where they serve hot food. Part of the Church of the Village’s Food Ministry is Daisy’s Food Pantry on Tuesday afternoons, where they distribute bags of groceries.
In stark contrast is the “new” Village. For instance, two blocks from Jimmy’s van is One Morton Square, a “full-service” residence where a 3,644-square-foot, four-bedroom, 4.5-bathroom condo sells for $9.5 million, and a 4,090-square-foot rental with 4 bedrooms and 4.5 bathrooms goes for $28,750 a month.
Included in the trend of luxury residences is the Abingdon, remodeled from the former Village Nursing Home. Here prices range as high as $31 million for an apartment. That our neighborhood 200-room nursing home will now accommodate just 10 households illustrates the change in Village life.
Generations visited their family members and friends in the old Village Nursing home. Now, those who eat at Greenwich House centers are not allowed the same solace when ill and at the end of their life. Their loved ones 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.
We have also lost our only hospital to luxury housing. Where St. Vincent’s used to be is now the Greenwich Lane, described on its sale Web site as: “…individually crafted with high-end, state-of-the-art, luxury living in mind.”
St. Vincent’s, founded in 1849 as a charity hospital, served the immigrant poor and homeless. It served my father’s Italian family for five generations. My son was born there, and we all used its E.R.
The freestanding emergency department in the new HealthPlex in the former St. Vincent’s O’Toole Building won’t be able to deal with heart attack and stroke emergencies at the same level as a full-service hospital.
People will die, I fear, because of the time it takes to cover the distance to a hospital outside of the neighborhood, combined with the heavy traffic on our tiny, crowded streets. “Treat, Stabilize, then Transfer” patients for higher-level care to a full-service hospital — which is what the HealthPlex says it will do — is not enough.
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!” All the cars then pulled off to the side and the ambulance continued east. Jimmy explained: “It could have been one of my friends in the ambulance.”
Developers and the people who buy these ultra-luxury apartments have shattered what took generations of effort to create. Today’s veteran Villagers have no way to benefit from the wealth creation that has destroyed their way of life, other than selling their leases and moving away. Their descendants will not know the same Village, and few will be able to afford to live here.
Also, many of the new buildings are in the flood zone. 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? In the event of 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.