As food supplies dwindles, homeless shelters keep a light on in the darkness of lower Manhattan


MANHATTAN, New York — At the height of Superstorm Sandy on Oct. 29, floodwaters rose and a Manhattan power substation exploded, plunging lower Manhattan into darkness. The city's homeless shelters became a lifeline not just for the city's homeless, but also for residents whose food has dwindled as it spoils in warm refrigerators. 

For a time, all tunnels and bridges to Manhattan were closed. Trains to lower Manhattan are still closed indefinitely after tunnels filled with seawater that could do serious damage to the electrical switches governing the rails. Roadways, the only outlets to the city, have been jammed and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced Wednesday that only cars with more than three people would be allowed to cross bridges into the city.

So the food supply in lower Manhattan has dropped. Restaurants and grocery stores are shuttered. The Salvation Army, which the city appointed as its lead agency for its Food Access Plan, has been feeding 1,000 people three meals a day at a lower Manhattan high school. The Bowery Mission, one of the oldest rescue missions in the city, has been serving meals to crowds twice its normal size. Its shoestring staff has been living in the Bowery's main men's shelter on the Lower East Side, serving food and walking the neighborhood to find any homeless who need a place to stay. One of the Bowery Mission's three cooks, who lives in Queens, came to the shelter ahead of the storm and planned to camp out for as long as he's needed.

During the storm, homeless shelters like the Bowery were a lifeline to the homeless. The mission opened its emergency shelter Monday and had 160 men sleeping in its chapel and dining hall, despite the power outage that left the shelter without heat. 

The streets of lower Manhattan at night now are dark and cold. But someone donated a generator to the mission, which became a lonely light on the Lower East Side. The staff members rotate the power between freezers and refrigerators so the mission has a consistent food supply. They ran construction lights through the mission's dining hall and dangled one light out front so people would know to come to the mission for help. 

The homeless from other shelters have flocked to the Bowery Mission. One women's shelter apparently ran so low on food it was serving bread and syrup, and 15 women came to the Bowery for food. We're seeing people we don't normally see," said the mission's director of operations Matt Krivich, who lives at the Bowery's main men's shelter. Manhattanites with homes of their own have come to the mission for food too as their food dwindled. Krivich said one local agency that normally delivers food to lower Manhattan had alerted residents of a large apartment complex nearby to come by the Bowery for food and water. 

"We want an opportunity to be in people's lives," Krivich said. "We're extremely blessed to have gotten a generator." But he added that the food shortage "is going to become more of a problem as we wait for electricity." 

The Bowery Mission prepared for disaster relief after Sandy, but Krivich said he didn't expect lower Manhattan would be without power for so long. New York's utility company Con Edison promises that power will be restored by Saturday, and the mission currently has three or four days' worth of food. The mission needs more blankets—since it doesn't have heat—as well as drinks (water, juice, soda) and basic foods like rice and oatmeal.