The City’s Oldest Homeless Organization, The Bowery Mission, Addresses Issues of Increasing Homelessness

By Anthony Paradiso

The Bowery Mission’s flagship location is in the East Village and is one of eight campuses interspersed throughout New York City’s five boroughs, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The East Village location opened its red doors to the public in 1879, making it the oldest Christian rescue mission in New York City. Nearly 150 years later, The Mission is still one of the city’s most progressive charities, and one of the most respected because of its determination to not just feed the homeless, but also nourish their souls.

Cheryl Mitchell is The Bowery Mission’s chief programming officer. She spoke about how the pandemic affected the community programs and homeless services The Mission has offered for more than a century.

“I remember going to work and seeing all these services, public toilets to shelters for the homeless, disappear overnight. We went to work trying to secure things we could do, like to-go meals and mobile showers. We kept our doors open to preserve our essential services,” Mitchell said. “While all in the city were encouraged to stay home, there were thousands who didn’t have that option.”

THE FRONT OF THE BOWERY MISSION’S FLAGSHIP location on 227 Bowery street in the East Village. Photo courtesy of the Bowery Mission.

Mitchell went on to say that before COVID, The Bowery Mission would provide its homeless visitors three meals indoors each day. When the pandemic started, it began offering “to-go meals” instead. There had also been a “chapel service” that was held before each meal at the East Village location. Recently, The Mission’s chapel, which was established in 1909, reopened. Cheryl Mitchell reported the reaction of one special person who attended one of the first services since 2020.

“Someone raised their hand and said, ‘Thank you so much for opening back up. Of all the food that you serve, the spiritual food that you give is most important to us. Having a community that can provide for the emotional need is at the heart [of what The Bowery does.]’”

According to The Bowery Mission’s website, about one in five adults living in New York City are “below the poverty line” (almost 1.7 million people.) In addition, about 80,000 people are homeless and 3,857 live “unsheltered in the subways.” The Mission can give the homeless a new lease on life, only if they choose to “walk through our red doors” at 227 Bowery Street in the East Village.

Many hard-working New Yorkers have lost their livelihoods and some have joined the thousands who were already living unsheltered in the subways or alleyways. When writing about The Mission, I was directed to a link to an article on Bowery’s website, titled “Peter’s Hope Story.” Peter was a chef at a Manhattan restaurant and had a good income before COVID struck. In March the restaurant closed. Peter lost his job, and then his grandmother, father, and brother to the virus. In September, Peter lost his apartment because he had been unable to afford the rent. He was “sleeping on subway trains” and, while there, was robbed of his ID and his backpack that contained all his belongings. At The Bowery’s emergency shelter on the Lower East Side, Peter walked through the red doors.

Cheryl Mitchell told me about The Bowery’s “robust” mental health program, which employs licensed social workers and mental health counselors for The Bowery’s program that trains students seeking to become mental health counselors. She explained that “[The Bowery] partners with schools and universities that train mental health counselors so we can supervise graduate interns as they’re entering that profession. Mental health [services]is a program that we already had in place [before the pandemic] and I’m glad that we’ve been able to provide it, even using people not on our clinical team.”

The Bowery did not just give Peter a full night’s rest, a pat on the back, and send him on his way. The staff was capable of rehabbing Peter—not just emotionally, but in a practical sense. The Bowery did this through their vocational team, which helped Peter complete his training for a real job and earn a food-handler’s license.

Peter’s life was nearly ruined by COVID-19, and for a while he thought that he had nobody. However, The Bowery Mission is a special organization that really cares about people. They not only provide emergency food and shelter, but also have programs that are “holistic in nature” and focus on “the needs of the whole person” on an individual basis.

For nearly 150 years, The Bowery Mission has been a lifesaver for thousands of the most vulnerable people in the city during crises such as the pandemic. And with eight locations in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, people who need help getting back on their feet will always be able to count on these magical places to help them reclaim their lives no matter how dire their circumstances may be.

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