“I don’t like living life alone,” says Maria Herron, founder of Bushwick Ayuda Mutua and the local bookstore Mil Mundos Books, which focuses on selling Spanish-language books. “I feel like a fuller person with community. If there are unwell people in your community and you don’t see that as a problem, then you are not in community with them.” 

As the number of homeless people living in New York City reaches record numbers – 70,306 individuals were living in shelters in February as opposed to 61,005 people in November according to figures from the the city, mutual aid groups exploded in the area during the COVID-19 pandemic and many of them are still out there doing that, from Herron’s group, which also runs a community fridge, to Facebook pages like Bushwick Mutual Aid, which runs a local concept called the Free Store

Between 10-15% of students in Bushwick experience homelessness, according to a recent report from the New York State Education Department. As of 2019, Brooklyn had the second highest population of people living in shelters after the Bronx. Kofi Thomas, who has been involved in a local communiuty garden called the People’s Garden since 2016, said that people in Bushwick are responding to a crisis.

According to Thomas, mutual aid is just a new term for what he calls being in community, and said the garden is a space for neighbors to meet, spend time together, and share resources. 

“When it comes down to it, we’re not going to let people starve, right? We’re not going to let people die in the streets, be kicked out of their houses, or not be able to clothe their children,” Thomas told me.  

Alicia Fox, who started the Bushwick Mutual Aid group on Facebook, said it had formed out of a desire to help people during the initial stages of the pandemic.

Fox told me that the homeless population exploded around Maria Hernandez park in those early years; between 2020 and 2022, the number of people experiencing homelessness increased 3.4% nationwide. According to Fox, many of those most in need of aid in Bushwick are also undocumented migrants. 

Kayla Sergio, who helped start the Bushwick Community Fridge, said she wishes that the city would invest more money into Bushwick (below)

“It was very obvious early on that undocumented people in the neighborhood didn’t qualify for anything,” Fox said. “If your children are born in this country, your children can qualify for food stamps and Medicaid, but as a parent, in the process of getting citizenship, your citizenship is basically denied if you receive any form of public service.” 

According to a report in Gothamist, many of the people living in shelters in New York City — almost 13,000 people — are asylum seekers. In Bushwick, where 67 % of residents are Spanish-speaking and 37 % are foreign born, this is of no small concern. Last August, when Texas Governor Greg Abbott was bussing migrants from the Texas-Mexico border to New York City, Herron said Bushwick Ayuda Mutua was working to give arriving newcomers clean clothes and food as well as connecting them to jobs and housing. 

Herron said it is important for people working in mutual aid to understand the demographics of their community, and urges Bushwick residents to learn conversational Spanish in order to better understand their neighbors. 

“When you’re Latin and you’re talking to other Latin people, they can talk to you in Spanish about it and they can be a little more honest, and they’re going to be like ‘Yeah my whole family is sleeping on the floor right now,’” Herron told me. “And that happens all the time. That is happening. All over Bushwick, straight up.” 

Bushwick Mutual Aid, the Free Store, Bushwick Ayuda Mutua, the People’s Garden as well as the Bushwick Community Fridge are all volunteer-run. Fox said there is no money in mutual aid, and that she does her organizing on top of her full-time job in educational publishing, but enjoys organizing efforts all the same. 

“I have a job, this doesn’t pay me a damn thing, if this were my job I’d be totally screwed,” Fox said. “I love doing it, I’ve met so many wonderful people in the area through it.” 

Kayla Sergio, who helped start the Bushwick Community Fridge, said she wishes that the city would invest more money into Bushwick.

The fridge, located on Broadway by the cafe Little Skips, is currently under threat of being removed. Unless they find another host, Sergio said the fridge will be gone, and that the people in Bushwick who use the fridge will have to find other ways of getting food. 

“A lot of the news and interviews [about the community fridge] were like ‘Oh, what a nice positive thing,’ and we were like ‘No, it kind of sucks that we have to do this. We’re tired,’” Sergio said. “A lot of people volunteering are the local community, they don’t have time to do this after work. Like, why do we have to do this? The city should do this.” 

Sergio said it is unclear who is pushing to get the fridge removed, but suspects that the owner of Little Skips, Linda Thach (who primarily goes by Rainbow), wants to get rid of the fridge and is blaming the current removal process on the current landlord of the building. According to Sergio, the workers at the cafe want to keep the fridge in place, which is why it has been able to stay for so long. Rainbow, who donated the fridge that the food is currently stored in, said she wants the fridge to stay and thinks it’s good for the community, but said the landlord has issues with food scraps, cardboard boxes and other debris being left around the fridge. According to Rainbow, she has cleaned the fridge and its surrounding area on multiple occasions, as well as contributed food to the fridge since it was installed in 2020, but cannot afford the manpower to keep the fridge clean.

Others say they are not waiting for the city to help them. Herron told me she feels like the city has lost the trust of the community too many times for her to expect anything from government officials. According to Thomas, people in Bushwick have the agency to bind together and form a strong community. 

“I’m fighting for the families on the block, I’m fighting for the senior home, I’m fighting for the old lady on the corner. I’m fighting for them, we’re fighting to build or rebuild this community,” Thomas told me. “We have to look out for each other, we have enough power and resources to take care of ourselves.”  

Images taken by Oona Milliken for Bushwick Daily.

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