It’s not-too-cold, not-too-warm in Yorkville this Thursday night. Inside the kitchen of the homeless shelter in the Church of The Holy Trinity’s basement, Thomas Williams is preparing for tonight’s group of men. He says the food is just right.
“A lot of good stuff. Sandwiches, salad, you got rice and beans. Wow, they’re going to be happy tonight,” says Williams, unwrapping the tops of several tinfoil trays in the kitchen. Some food was donated; most came from church members who made a feast earlier to deliver to the elderly. “Thanksgiving? Wow, can’t get any better than this.”
There’s cranberry sauce, rice, some turkey, bread. All that was missing was the pumpkin pie. Williams is not surprised.
“You’ll never starve on Thanksgiving and Christmas in New York. That’s the beauty of it all,” says Williams, a 51-year-old monitor of the shelter. “The people that are hungry, some people, they can’t get to the food. We can get to it. I learned that a long time ago.”
Many clients and volunteers at the shelter consider Williams the glue that holds this community together. He is a prime example of a success story, having gone full circle from shelter client to a volunteer with his own housing.
“Thomas is a beautiful human being. More people got to get to know him like I did. He’s one of the few people I really trust in here since I’ve been here because he used to be one of us — he’s still one of us,” said Christopher Whitfield, 44, a former client of the shelter who visited for the holiday. “He’s one of those types of people if you’re down and out he’ll give you his heart if he has to. You don’t find too many good, decent human beings left like that in the world ever. He’s one in a million.”
Williams was a client of the shelter four years ago. He had been living on the street on and off for a decade. He slept in the doorways of stores, subways and station platforms — “I’ve been everywhere I could get a bit of rest,” he says now.
It’s a contrast with the “nice life” he says he previously lived, which included a family, home, and job. He worked as a professional football player, playing in the minor league and also the NFL as backup player in ’87 for three weeks. He made a “nice living with that” while working security as an offseason job.
But then he says he “completely lost it.” His son died after crashing the motorcycle he got for his high school graduation his first night riding it. Williams says his grief led to divorce and his two children moving away.
“I was completely alone here and I didn’t want to live no more,” he says.
The native New Yorker stopped working and soon found himself homeless, first sleeping at friends’ homes until living completely on the streets. He befriended other homeless people who helped him build a list of soup kitchens and shelters.
“You learn pretty fast. You learn how to survive,” he says. His income came from lugging cans and bottles to recycling stations. He bought a membership to a recreation center to shower.”Sleeping in doorways on Madison Avenue and some of the fashionable places, getting tapped on the leg by the police to move on,” Williams recalls what he considers his lowest moment.
It took the death of a homeless friend to push him to seek a better life.
“He froze to death one night. After that happened, I decided had to get some help and I found this place,” he said.
Holy Trinity’s homeless shelter was where he got a bed every night as he waited for to get approved for housing.
At 7:15 p.m. on Thanksgiving eve the bus that transports the homeless men to the shelter arrives. About 15 men enter the dining room, the usual number of people — “It can get up to 19 if it gets really cold. We’ll make room for them.” There are some new faces tonight.
“If you wasn’t here that other night, sit right here at the table,” Williams tells the group. He explains the rules and operations of the shelter as the regulars wheel their cots into the cafeteria-like adjacent room.
“These are sheets. Pillowcase, blanket,” he says, passing the items to a man. Just then the doorknob to the room where the cots are stored pops off and lands with couple of loud bangs on the ground.
Over a century old, the church, an Episcopal parish, doesn’t permeate much in the shelter. The lone cross in the shelter hangs about a foot above an old radio sitting on a microwave next to the sinks. The shelter is open every night and takes in homeless men in programs that provide them with job skills training. On Saturday, the shelter moonlights as a thrift shop.
Williams got housing in the Upper East Side just as the global recession kicked into high gear. “I met people from all over the country from all walks of life here. I got guys that were former traders on Wall Street that made millions and it’s all gone now.
“At least that’s what they tell me,” he says with a chuckle.
He started volunteering here two days after getting his housing four years ago. He says he can’t work fulltime due to high blood pressure. Instead, he volunteers twice a week from 5:30 p.m. to 5:30 a.m. when the bus picks up the men.
“When I do this, I see myself,” he says. “A lot of people who come here for the first time, this is traumatizing for some people. I’m here to give them advice: ‘Don’t get scared. It’s going to be alright. You’re going to make it, you’re going to get a place to live eventually.’”
As the night winds down — lights out at 10 p.m. — many have already gone to bed; each cot spread about 5 feet apart. In one corner, a 26-year-old’s face is illuminated by his iPad as he scrolls thorough job websites. In the kitchen, two men are listening to Williams’ late night entertainment: football play-by-plays on the radio. A few others sit at the dining table and watch the film, “I Am Legend,” on the TV.
There wasn’t any pumpkin pie or a couch to sink into after all that turkey, but the Thanksgiving spirit wasn’t lost here.
“I am thankful that I have friends that I can help here,” says Williams. He doesn’t need to use soup kitchens anymore, but he still had dinner with some of the church volunteers. “It was nice. I met all the volunteers there; they were great. And I’m just happy that there’s places like that open so that we can eat, so we all can eat — who needs to see people. I need to see people. I need to be around people. So it helps.”