Father Mike Lopez’s voice is effusive and booms for all to hear. On a Saturday afternoon, after a shock of sub-zero cold, he can be seen exiting an emergency-red colored van with the words “Community Response Vehicle” written across in yellow. A small group of volunteers follows him, pulls out plastic tables, a plastic bag filled with coats and a large thermos filled with hot noodle soup. A small line develops, here along Knickerbocker Avenue and Starr Street, in front of an entrance to Maria Hernandez Park.
Lopez and his volunteers are not alone. On this particular morning, a congregation from the Jeremiah Twenty Nine Eleven Homeless Project beats the Hungry Monk Rescue Truck by mere minutes. The tables move together shortly after a pastor from the project delivers a brief sermon, blessing the trays of rice. “The more the merrier,” Lopez said, pleased with the company.
The Hungry Monk project started two years ago and is Lopez’s gesture at larger-scale homeless outreach, something with outfits. In fact, he sees it as the more secular arm of his All Saints independent parish, an attempt to earnestly reach out to who he calls “the new Ridgewoodites,” who might, he says, not feel as connected to the religious background of his mission but want to do something good. “Being with the poor, that’s what serving God is about,” Lopez said.
Not all agree. This past September, his independent parish was forced out of Ridgewood Presbyterian Church, after the church terminated its agreement with Lopez that had allowed him to use its space once a week to provide services for the homeless while he was working with the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) to secure funding for a more permanent bed stabilization program.
“It got a little out of hand,” said Virginia Agosto, Ridgewood Presbyterian’s secretary, as she described the situation. “They were a different kinds of homeless. They would bring alcohol here…and we caught them in the pews once, it was scary.”
Since asking Lopez to leave, Ridgewood Presbyterian did become the recipient of a DHS grant, for a program that Lopez says that he had originally organized and is now administered directly by the church and Breaking Ground, a large social services nonprofit. “They’re all screened and there’s a security guard now,” Agosto says of its current operations.
Lopez dismisses these efforts. “To be candid, they’re not real Christians. They don’t want to be among the poor,” he said while filling plates outside. He alleges that the homeless that Breaking Ground serves are not from Ridgewood and that the program hasn’t done very much to address the neighborhood’s ongoing homeless crisis, which catalyzed last year in the tragic death of Arkadiusz Jasinski, a former construction worker who died in the cold.
Lopez says that Jasinski’s story is not unlike many among Ridgewood’s homeless: “After the housing crash, back in 2008, they didn’t have jobs… And their families, they threw them out.”
He sees Ridgewood Presbyterian’s rejection of his efforts in the larger context of the neighborhood’s long-standing conservatism toward the homelessness, an attitude that shows its face in such sparkups. Only last year, in the same month that Jasinski died, Assemblywoman Catherine Nolan, who represents Ridgewood in the New York State Assembly, authored a public letter to Mayor Bill de Blasio, writing in part: “We are opposed to any additional shelters in our communities.”
Lopez is optimistic nonetheless. He sees the Ridgewood’s newer residents, post-collegiate and obsessively socially conscious, as far more receptive. Alicia Camden, who works social media for The Infatuation, volunteers weekly with Hungry Monk, where in the morning she helps take unsold leftovers from a Trader Joe’s downtown in order distribute it on weekends.
“I love it here and I want to be a good neighbor and that’s why I try to stay involved,” Camden said. “I think some people here have a NIMBY attitude and I think it’s very unfortunate.”
Since Jasinski’s death, Lopez set up a GoFundMe in order to fund beds at Lopez’s new home at the Covenant Lutheran Church, also in Ridgewood. New negotiations have begun with the DHS again, with the hopes of establishing a bed stabilization at the Covenant Lutheran Church, also in Ridgewood. New York Council Member Robert Holden, who is leading the effort to secure that funding in City Hall, told Bushwick Daily that the funding should arrive by the end of February.
Those potentially interested in participating with the Hungry Monk Rescue Truck in Bushwick and Ridgewood should email [email protected] with their availability.
Photos courtesy of Hungry Monk Rescue Truck, unless otherwise specified.