Grit and Grace on Manhattan’s Oldest Street

Excerpted From
Bowery Mission
By Jason Storbakken

The muffled hum of morning traffic gets louder and more distinct as I climb the stairs from the subway. Sirens wail, and I hear a truck’s angry blare—some urgent food delivery no doubt—above engine thrum and radio thump and throb. As I emerge, exhaust fumes swirl away the stairwell’s stagnant air, and I quickly scan Bowery and Houston Streets. When I first came here, I did this to orient myself, having lost all sense of direction in the sub-city tangle. Nearly 10 years on, I know this neighborhood like the back of my hand, yet I still glance around reflexively as soon as I arrive—scanning for trouble as well as friendly faces. Vehicles and pedestrians pour past, as Houston is one of the main arteries into Lower Manhattan.

Before turning the corner onto the Bowery, I stop to converse with Shirley. In her wheelchair beside a spattered wall, she is begging spare change, as usual. She’s in her 50s. Burn scars mar her face, neck and arms, and she is missing a leg and several fingers. Shirley told me her story several years ago. Her childhood and adolescence were nothing unusual, she said. Content within her intersecting circles of family and friends, she never felt afraid or insecure. But one day when she was 18, someone forced her into a car, raped her, held a lighter to her clothes and threw her out of the vehicle. She did not tell me if the perpetrator was a stranger or someone she knew.

Shirley’s psychological injuries were even worse than the physical ones, and she has spent most of her life on the streets or in and out of hospitals, mental health facilities and shelters. At times, she emits gut-wrenching wails or rants incoherently—and passersby avert their eyes and quicken their steps. If I pause to say, “Hi Shirley!” during one of these frantic episodes, she’ll calm down to respond, “Well hello, Pastor Jason,” becoming lucid through being recognized and named. Authentic relationship and human connection has incredible power to transform.

Turning right, I walk south, past bottle shops, pop-up tattoo parlors and graffiti-splashed storefronts. Many establishments have signs in Chinese as well as English; we’re not far from Chinatown. I pass some high-end new developments, shoehorned between crumbling façades. Progress is pressing its way onto the mile-and-a-half-long Bowery, but the squalid conditions that gave Manhattan’s oldest street its reputation still surround me.

Navigating around broken paving slabs, a fire barrel, lumpy garbage bags—familiar hazards—I’m more concerned about tripping on human beings. There are still a few on the sidewalk at nine o’clock, stoned or sleeping. I know some by name, and I might come back in an hour or two to chat or bring them coffee. They know they are welcome at the Mission. They also know I respect their choice when they stay away.

After passing a couple kitchen appliance stores, I can see my goal behind scaffolding uprights: the crimson doors of the Bowery Mission. The walk from the subway has taken barely five minutes. But now an old friend, Red, steps into my path, signaling me to stop—as predictable as the pigeons. Everyone on the Bowery knows this elderly gentleman, both because he hauls cardboard from the local businesses and because he shares his limitless fund of wisecracks with almost anyone he meets, choosing the joke to fit the person. Red and I are still chuckling over his latest when three women in fashionable attire and tinted glasses swish past, heading toward New Museum—which towers over the Mission and brings a steady flow of tourists to our corner of the Lower East Side.

A few more strides, and I’ve arrived. Kimbell Frazer greets me at the door. He runs the front desk and provides a warm welcome to all who enter—staff, guest or volunteer.

During my years at the Bowery Mission, I have immersed myself in this street’s rich history and culture. On good days, I sense God’s presence here —in the folk I encounter and even in our chapel’s odor. The stink used to repulse me, especially in summertime heat, until a thought grabbed me: The chapel walls and pews absorb the smell of the homeless as Christ’s cross absorbs the world’s sin. From that day, the reek of sweat and urine became almost aromatic. In this place, I have heard the hopes and hardships of hundreds or perhaps even thousands.

Jerry has Tourette syndrome, with violent muscle spasms. His manic energy prevents him sitting long during chapel, and I have to remind him to watch his language when he eats in Fellowship Hall. Once he was jailed for months after accidentally knocking someone out with a compulsive spasm. But authorities never addressed his neurological disorder.

Cowboy, another Bowery associate, disappeared for a couple of years. Everyone assumed he had drunk himself to death, until he stumbled back one day. His physical and mental condition had so deteriorated, however, that his return seemed less like a resurrection than a scene from The Walking Dead.

Wheelchair Charlie would catch some sleep on a train or in the park, but police always made him move on. After decades of this and a corresponding decline in his health, his swollen legs had to be amputated, and he eventually died of complications. Too many have died, some of whose names I never even learned. The chief medical examiner will occasionally call me to come and identify a body. I see a lot of death on the Bowery.

Beverly had a stroke and could no longer walk from her apartment to the Mission. Martin beat up Aliya in the Mission lobby. And Bernie beat up Laura …

These are my acquaintances, my flock, my community?

Yes, these are some of the characters who share my life and shape my thinking. Since my 2010 arrival on the Bowery, many of them have accompanied me to schools, churches and seminaries across the country, to tell what living on the street is like. A number have stayed in my home, spending Christmas with my family.

Homeless people are not the good-for-nothing bums portrayed by the media. Most find themselves on the street through a combination of flawed systems and traumatic personal history. They don’t fit into a culture that exalts independence, which too often translates as disconnectedness or just plain loneliness when you have no family or community. Many, like Shirley and Jerry, are incapable of caring for themselves. Others are troubled war veterans. Some were set on their downward course by structural racism. And many struggle with addiction. Society’s view of substance abuse as criminal, rather than as a health issue comparable to mental illness, often inhibits them from asking for help.

A disproportionate number of the homeless come from broken homes. Too often connected with abuse, family breakup can leave those involved mired in shame, which prevents them from seeking help and moving toward recovery. Whatever its cause, family collapse leaves lasting scars.

Take Billy, for example. Although he failed his two tries at the Mission’s recovery program, he still drops in for a meal or a change of clothes, and he has told me his story, over time. He is the one who helped me understand that, for kids, foster care and institutionalization are forms of homelessness. I have learned that, on average, a child goes through six placements before aging out, sometimes directly to life on the street.

Billy’s first five years were normal, he told me, and his family’s house was modest but comfortable. Then his world turned upside down: Child Protective Services arrived one morning and removed him from his home. Billy clung so tightly to the stair banister that the social workers had to pry his fingers loose. None of them took time to explain to the child why he was being taken from his parents, whom he never saw again; today, more than 40 years later, he still has no clue.

Billy was put in an orphanage and spent his next five years in institutions before an Italian-American couple finally adopted him. They hoped to give him a happy home, but they were aging and ill-equipped to care for a traumatized 10-year-old. They returned Billy to Child Services when he was 15, and he entered the foster care system. At 17, he escaped foster care—and initially avoided homelessness—by joining the navy. He hoped to find stability but wound up instead with an undesirable discharge. Life felt like a series of rejections—by his birth family, by his adoptive parents, by the military. He then wandered the East Coast for several years until, after a prison term for forgery, he found himself on the Bowery.

Too many in Billy’s situation resign themselves to feeling worthless, believing no one knows or cares whether they live or die. That is why our residential program invites hurting and homeless men and women to “access comprehensive services for physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual healing—all in the context of a safe, supportive community.” The program’s name has varied over the years, but its aim remains constant: to help participants progress from isolation or despair to a purpose-filled life.

Some who arrive hunting emergency food or shelter end up staying, becoming part of our team. Al Moyer survived for over a decade by scrounging in dumpsters and garbage cans, before he walked into the Mission one day looking for shelter from the rain. A lifelong New Yorker, his opportunities growing up had been limited by poverty, and he slid into depression. Alcohol did the rest, as he tried to drown his disappointment. Al discovered that he liked the Mission, however, and after sitting through numerous chapel services, he decided to give faith a try. He completed our recovery program, got back on his feet and was eventually hired as operations manager. He now gives his weekends to host volunteers. But what Al does best is transmit his optimism to new arrivals.

Vinny, too, spent years “living like a dog,” as he described it. Only the persistence of volunteers and staff repeatedly bringing him food in the park persuaded him to visit the Bowery Mission. Here he experienced a conversion that changed every aspect of his life. He told novices in later years:

“Before I came here, I was dead. I was running with drugs. Satan had took everything from me for 26 years: my dignity, my respect—everything—until he had me laying in the street. If you ain’t at that bottom, thank God, but that’s the bottom I had to be brought to.

“When I first came to this place, I didn’t care what it was about. My mind was still out there. But Jesus conquered—not with a knife, not with a switchblade, not with a gun—he conquered with love.

“When I came into this program, I didn’t read the Bible as much as people wanted me to. My mind was all banged up. But I read the Gospels. What stuck out to me was: You are forgiven … don’t let your left hand know what your right is doing … visit your brothers in the hospital … visit your brothers in prison … be careful when you entertain strangers, because some have entertained angels. That came to me when I worked the front desk. So I have to be kind. Not because I want to, but because Jesus commands me to. That’s the bottom line.”

Vinny eventually became a counselor. “Look at me,” he would tell anyone feeling low. “I had no family two years ago. Nobody wanted this man! But Jesus did. Sometimes I step back, and it blows me away.” Convinced that faith can only survive with support from fellow believers, Vinny made himself a brother to anyone entering the Mission. He challenged Martin, a young volunteer who seemed wavering and directionless, to discover and pursue God’s plan for his future—which gave Martin no peace until he did so.

Vinny ultimately died of AIDS, contracted during his former life, yet his joy-filled witness lives on in the countless individuals he touched. And when Martin married and started a family, he and his wife named their first son Vinny.

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Excerpted from Bowery Mission: Grit and Grate on Manhattan’s Oldest Street by Jason Storbakken. Copyright 2019. Plough Publishing House.