Anthony Womack stuck out among the men he dined with last Thursday evening. He wore a vertically-striped blue and white shirt buttoned to the top, a patterned tie, black vest, along with creaseless black pants. He may have looked like he could fit in on Wall Street, but Womack spent his Thanksgiving in a homeless shelter.
“I ain’t used to dress like this a lot. So by doing this, it’s doing something different for me,” said the 27-year-old in the basement of the Church of The Holy Trinity in Yorkville.
Something different is why he and thousands of others move to the city. In his case, it was to get away from years of homelessness, drug abuse and “getting in and out of jail, in and out of jail since juvy.” As he’s finding, escaping the life he had back in Baltimore isn’t as simple as moving here. Many other people in the city are facing similar hardships — and it’s gotten worse.
Statistics released by the Census Bureau via the American Community Survey show that the number of people living in poverty in the city increased nearly a percentage point to 20.9 percent — over one in five New Yorkers. At nearly 1.7 million people, that’s over three times the population of Staten Island.
Holy Trinity is part of an effort to help those in need find a way out. In collaboration with Mainchance Drop-In Center (a facility by Grand Central Neighborhood Social Services Corporation), the church offers its basement as a year-round shelter for homeless men part of a program to get them housing and work. Roughly 15 men are bussed to the 88nd Street and Second Avenue location each night. Lights are out by 10 p.m. but first comes dinner — Thanksgiving dinner tonight.
“These guys are in for a big surprise when they come in here tonight. They’re going to think there’s nothing here,” said Thomas Williams as he unwrapped trays of Thanksgiving leftovers church members prepared hours earlier and delivered to elderly people.
Williams, 51, has come full circle with the program, starting off as a client a few years prior and now volunteering his time here. Previously, he lived a “nice life” with a family, a home, and professional football career. But following a divorce and the death of his oldest son, Williams eventually became homeless.
He spent his nights sleeping on subways and station platforms, and selling cans and bottles for income for a decade. It took the death of a friend, a homeless friend who froze to death on the streets, for him to seek shelter at Holy Trinity where he stayed for five months until getting approved for housing.
Now he volunteers two nights a week as a monitor to “help other people who are just trying to find a way home.”
As the men filled the basement, which moonlights as a thrift shop every Saturday, Williams began his usual routine: “If you wasn’t here that other night, sit right here at the table,” he said to the new faces in the group, explaining the operations of the shelter as the regulars wheeled their cots out from storage and took their sheets and pillows.
The night’s meal consisted of Spanish style rice, and nearly all the essential Thanksgiving trimmings imaginable minus the pumpkin pie. As the men began to eat, one of them played the raunchy comedy “Road Trip” on the CRT TV. Nearby, the entire “Austin Powers” series on VHS was stacked between other donated movies, including “The Silence of The Lambs” and “Shakespeare in Love.”
The sharply-dressed Womack filled half his plate with turkey and stuffing. This was the first shelter he slept in when he arrived four months ago. Back in Baltimore, he grew up living foster home to foster home since age 14. He says the types of people he surrounded himself with contributed to a life of crime and drug abuse.
“They say, ‘Young, dumb, full of come.’ Yeah, I was one of them,” he said.
“I hit rock bottom. Waking up sometimes crying standing outside in the cold — snowing, raining. Sleeping in your homeboy’s truck. Sleeping in one of your friend’s car. Sleeping outside in the park hoping that you’ve got somewhere to go the next day,” said Womack.
After the four-hour ride to New York, Womback stepped off the bus with high hopes, hopes which haven’t paid off yet: “I used to work at McDonald’s and even McDonald’s won’t hire me right now.”
He’s not the only one having trouble securing employment, according to the latest city statistics. The unemployment rate was at 7.1 percent in 2007 before the global economic downturn; it has stagnated the past two years at 11.2 percent.
Womback’s big problem is not having his high school diploma, he says, but there’s a more significant issue to employment.”I can’t blame the economy for that. I got to blame myself because how are you going to hire someone when you’re still smoking weed,” he said. “It was my choice. Nobody put a gun to my head and told me, ‘You’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that.’”
As of Thanksgiving day, Womback said he was one day clean. While he’s quit multiple times before, he says he’ll maintain it this time because he recently got approved for housing and he starts a GED program next week.
Another visitor to the shelter this Thanksgiving, South Bronx native Luis Vasquez, returned to the city five months ago after living in Cobb County, Ga. for decades. He tried sleeping on the subway but found it too uncomfortable. “I had to start from the bottom,” he said.
Vasquez, 53, found employment in Georgia within a few weeks making machines that produce oil drums and eventually started paying a mortgage on a house. In every practical sense, he conquered the American dream. That dream collapsed in 2009 when the company he worked for downsized. Out of a job, and with unemployment insurance payments winding down, he lost his mortgage and came to New York to start anew.
“How does it feel to go from having a house and a good-paying job, to now? It feels bad, it feels terrible. And the only thing you can do is hope they don’t cut these programs because these programs are important,” said Vasquez.The programs have helped lead him to a couple of jobs which both didn’t work out. Still, that’s not slowing him down.
“When I see a person laying on the street, to me, in my mind, he’s given up. He’s given up on life, and I tell myself, I know it sounds kind of harsh, but I would rather be dead than to be laying on the street giving up on life. I just prefer to keep trying,” he said.Vasquez said he’s thankful that he’s “doing pretty good” all things considered, but most importantly: “I’m thankful this Thanksgiving day to actually have a place to sleep.”