Mayor Bloomberg came by after the 8 a.m. meal and police commissioner Ray Kelly showed up a few hours later. But for the homeless and working poor people lined up outside the Bowery Mission on Thanksgiving Day, the glimpse of a VIP meant little compared to the prospect of a free turkey feast, a “blessing bag” of winter clothing, a new coat, and toys for the children. “People are nice here, very nice,” said a man shivering in a hooded sweatshirt as he waited to enter a tent leading to the Bowery Mission’s century-old chapel. “And the food is good.”
The 49-year-old had just spent three months in prison after boosting a pair of sneakers and was now living in a halfway house. “I lost my room and all my clothes,” he said, adding that his landlord threw away his possessions when he disappeared to Rikers Island. “Now I’m living in the Bronx. God will provide,” he said with a jaunty grin. Josh Mitchell, a painfully thin 31-year-old, stood next to him in line, one of about 1,500 people who would be served hearty holiday dinners in intervals throughout the day. Some 5,500 others would be fed throughout the five boroughs by the Mission’s partners, thanks to its acquisition of 540 turkeys (sorry, Morrissey!), 5,000 pounds of potatoes, 900 pies, 2,000 pounds of stuffing and 260 gallons of gravy.
“It’s my first Thanksgiving here,” Mitchell said, noting that he lives in Brooklyn but doesn’t make much money as a cook and has no regular residence. He admitted that he drinks. No one asked him about his status once he got inside the Christian interfaith establishment. There, he sat down for his main nourishment of the day beside people like Carlos Matias, a 38-year-old Puerto Rican immigrant from the Bronx who said he was unemployed and currently in treatment for a bipolar disorder.
“We serve everybody who’s homeless and other people who are hurting,” said James Winans, chief development officer at the Bowery Mission. “Some people have a situation in their family. Our job is to serve them and no questions are asked.” But Winans readily answered questions about the funding for the Mission’s philanthropy, noting that some of the thousands of donors over the last year include companies like Deutsche Bank, organizations like Toys for Tots, and neighbors like Whole Foods and EMM Group, which runs The General restaurant down the block. Altogether, there were about 600 volunteers yesterday, Winans said, claiming that many had been homeless themselves.
James Macklin, 74, director of outreach at the Mission, acknowledged he had been down and out in decades past — “messed up in the head” after losing his lucrative cleaning business to cocaine in 1977. Then he discovered the Bowery Mission through a chance encounter with a woman on the A train who introduced him to the program. “I kicked the habit,” he said, “I threw away alcohol and smoking. I don’t use nothing.” He noted that his bank account wasn’t as high as it used to be. “But my checks don’t bounce.”
Both Macklin and Irwin D. Simon, CEO of The Hain Celestial Group, said that increasing numbers of people who come to the Bowery Mission these days are simply hungry, unable to afford both steep rents and the cost of food in New York City. “But this place is open 365 days a year,” Simon said. “I’ll never forget coming in here after Hurricane Sandy and seeing individuals sleeping on the floor. They never close their doors to anyone. What they do on the Lower East Side is amazing,” he went on, touting Veronica Kelly, the police commissioner’s wife, as a volunteer and “endless worker who knows how to get things done.” Asked if serving the poor was a good way to spend a Thanksgiving, Simon, who had come with his four children, replied without hesitation: “You know something? There’s no better way.”