New York sits down to dinner

April 27th, 2016  |  Published in Uncategorized

Food with a side order of friendship

By Sanaz Rizlenjani

Jose Debourg takes his coffee black. He sits alone, quietly sipping, waiting in the basement of Calvary St. George’s Parish Episcopal Church, across from Stuyvesant Square in downtown Manhattan. This is his regular Thursday spot – he looks forward to it all week.

He likes to get here early, and to sit at a table near the basement entrance. From here, he has a clear view of the station where soup is served, as well as of the front doors, through which hungry guests trickle in for another weekly lunch prepared by church volunteers.

Debourg spent the previous night in Gramercy Park, on the steps of another church, where he has grown accustomed to sleeping on a makeshift bed of cardboard and a sleeping bag. Since the weather started warming up, he says he sleeps there every night, but when it is cold he prefers a subway station to the city’s shelter system.

“Guys get murdered in shelters in New York City,” says Debourg, who turned 66 in March. “A lot of people choose to stay in the streets rather than going to shelters. It’s safer on the street.”

Glancing up from his coffee, Debourg notices a familiar face. “Steve!” he calls out. “This is a friend of mine, this is Steve. He’s a Knicks fan.”

Steve Ellison, 57, a rugged man with a smile as warm and inviting as Debourg’s, sits down beside his friend and the two begin to discuss the previous night’s game between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz, the final game for the Lakers’ Kobe Bryant.

“Sixty? Kobe scored 60?” cries Ellison.

Debourg met Ellison through a mutual friend, and both heard about St. George’s Common Table from others living on the street. While Ellison lives in an apartment in the Bronx, he has attended Thursday lunches at the Common Table for the last two years.

Both men recognize the considerable amount of food assistance available to the homeless in Manhattan, relative to other U.S. cities, but they also agree that the homelessness situation has worsened, with the number of homeless people increased “astronomically,” according to Ellison. And there’s a problem at the intersection of food and shelter assistance that makes a decent meal even more difficult, he says.

“Food stamps don’t allow you to buy hot food,” Ellison explains. And because of pests and insect problems, the city’s shelters do not permit guests to bring groceries or prepared meals inside. Food Emporium near Union Square, he says, is one of the few places that accept food stamps for hot food purchases at the deli.

Ellison, who receives $22.50 in food stamps in addition to his military benefits each month, chooses to cook the majority of his meals himself, at home. He purchases fresh vegetables and put his SNAP benefits toward meats like chicken, sausage, and steak. “It’s a much better deal for me to go to supermarkets in my area, and store and freeze all my steaks, and cook at my leisure.”

Ellison strives to eat a balanced diet and to have three meals each day. He is here today not for himself, but to collect a hot meal for someone who could not attend. Every week, he leaves his Fordham Heights apartment in the Bronx and stops by lunch at St. George’s to grab a plate of food for a friend in Manhattan. “Not everybody has the opportunity to make it to these soup kitchens,” he says.

Debourg frequently visits other Manhattan soup kitchens, and also makes an effort to eat healthy food. Most mornings, he opts for a vegetarian breakfast, served by a Hare Krishna group in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village – salad with fruit, homemade cake, and pasta or rice. On weekends, he attends other soup kitchens, most of them in downtown Manhattan, and treats himself to a full breakfast with eggs, bacon, and sausage. “Weekends I’ll eat a little more,” he says.

According to Debourg, what distinguishes St. George’s is the  thoughtfulness and care conveyed by both the food and the people. He will be the first to tell you that it is not a regular soup kitchen.

“Not only do they serve excellent food,” says Debourg, who has been a regular for almost two years. “They cook it with love. And another thing is, they make you feel like family.”

He says that a lot of times New Yorkers “shy away” when interacting with the homeless: “For reasons I can understand, they don’t really connect.”

But here, things are different. Volunteers make a deliberate effort to greet each guest, and to chat and get to know them. While many of the regulars are in need of food and other types of assistance, these lunches are open to anyone who wishes to join, whether they are homeless or not, and everyone is welcome to several helpings, as long as food is available.

After relatives moved away from the city, Debourg struggled with alcohol abuse for about seven years. He says he used to attend AA meetings, and no longer has a problem, but has been living on the street for the past couple of years, off and on. “I appreciate how I’m treated here,” he says, “It helps me feel a little bit better about myself, in spite of the situation.”

As the clock nears noon, the scent of a home-cooked lunch fills the basement, now transformed into a dining hall. On today’s menu is chili with hot dogs, French fries, and various flavors of cake – all started from scratch at around eight  that very morning. The two companions are now ready for their mid-day meal.

“I made good friends out here. We develop friendship, we get information, we help each other out.” says Debourg, looking toward at Ellison. “Anybody can open cans,” he adds. But here at St. George’s, “it’s a family atmosphere.”

Sanaz is in our class.

Tags: , , , ,

Your Comments