By Scott Eidler
In the basement of a Queens church – the same one where he once served as an altar boy – a man stocked up on boxes of cereal and cans of soup on a recent Saturday.
Every other week Vincent Kelly, 59, makes the trip to St. Raphael’s Roman Catholic Church on Greenpoint Avenue in Long Island City. Here, volunteers operate a food pantry downstairs, where parishioners can come twice a week to collect for themselves and their families. According to church volunteer Brenda Frenette, 72, the food pantry feeds roughly 1,700 each month.
The church provides a valuable service at a time when the number of New Yorkers living in poverty continues to grow. The U.S. Census Bureau reported last month that in 2010 the poverty rate was greater than 20 percent in New York, the highest it has been in a decade. By comparison, the poverty level for the entire country was 15 percent.
The coordinator of the food pantry services, Elizabeth Cira, 72, said visitors come from all over Queens and Brooklyn, including Corona, Flushing, Woodside, Astoria and Long Island City. She said that most of the visitors are Hispanic, and the rest are a mix of Asian, Polish, Turkish and Romanian immigrants. “Most come because of the economic depression,” she explained. “They don’t have jobs.”
In tough economic times, the poor are the most vulnerable when it comes to putting food on the table. According to a 2010 report by the Food Bank of New York, 37 percent of New Yorkers had difficulty affording food. As a result of the recession, 30 percent of city residents reduced their food intake while 29 percent resorted to lower quality meals.
At St. Raphael’s, parishioners can browse through a selection of canned goods and cereal: Beans, sardines, soup, tomato sauce and Toasted Oats fill the shelves. Cira said the Food Bank of New York and other Catholic charities donate the food.
Kelly, who visits the pantry every other week, said he had lived on the street until he had constructed his own home recently. He said he gets by as a scavenger, collecting fresh meat from dumpsters and scrap metal from junkyards. “You got to hustle because there’s no jobs out there,” he said.
Kelly said that he had no choice but to adopt this type of lifestyle. Qualifying for food stamps proved too cumbersome, and he’s a few years shy of receiving his first Social Security check. “When I get to turn 62, I’ll get my Social Security, and I’ll be on my way,” Kelly said. “But right now I’m too young.”
The pantry also served a group of women who had traveled on a bus from Kew Gardens. Rosa Martinez, 66, said the quantity of food she brings back to her family prevents her from spending $100 on the same amount at the supermarket.
“We come here because we need to,” she said. “The economic situation is very hard right now.”
One visitor to the pantry said he hadn’t been able to work for 15 years. James McCaffrey, 58, served in the 113rd Division of the Marine Corps during the Vietnam War. He suffers from traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder that has rendered him too ill to work. Coming to the food pantry, he said, has been a positive experience. “I’ve come a long way,” said McCaffrey. “Coming to these places, meeting people, has been a great asset to me.”
Kelly, the former altar boy, said the church is the safest resource for him, after having been to five different shelters he described as filthy and crime-ridden. His connection to the church, he said, helps him manage during hard times. “I was baptized in this church,” he said. “My brothers were married here.”