In a Deep Freeze, a Bowery Mission Opens Its Doors

With temperatures staying below freezing, the Bowery Mission Fellowship Chapel on Madison Avenue has been a godsend for New York City's homeless. (Carly Marsh/NY City Lens)

With temperatures staying below freezing, the Bowery Mission Fellowship Chapel on Madison Avenue has been a godsend for New York City’s homeless. (Carly Marsh/NY City Lens)

As temperatures dropped into the single digits this past week, homeless New Yorkers poured into the Bowery Mission Fellowship Chapel on Madison Avenue by the hundreds, prompting the mission’s administrators to let some of them sleep in the chapel’s pews and on the floor of the dining hall.

According to Allen Moyer, the nighttime operations manager at the mission, nearly 230 men used the facilities last Tuesday night, when temperatures dropped nine degrees below normal and a record snowfall of 11 inches fell, according to the National Weather Service. And about 125 men stayed in the chapel to keep warm Thursday afternoon when the temperature was about nine degrees.

“This time of the year you can’t help it,” said James Macklin, the director of outreach at the Bowery Mission. “You’re not going to leave them outside and call yourself a compassionate caregiver.”

The doors of the Christian mission have been open since the beginning of the winter. Men and women come in off the sidewalk to step into the heated foyer and use the public restroom. Chuck Grant, a volunteer, sits behind the welcome desk with a smile on his face. He offers tissues, peanut butter sandwiches, an “NYC Street Smarts” guide to other free meals, and sometimes socks or gloves if he has them.

Roughly 180 people came for breakfast Thursday. That’s an increase of about 50 people, according to the directors at the mission. For the homeless who have sheltered here for warmth, the chapel’s hospitality has been a godsend.

Keith Sills, 50, has been on the streets since October when he left the homeless shelter to increase his welfare benefits from $22.50 every two weeks to $129. This is the third week he has slept in the pews.

“The streets will tear you up, even if you’ve got a place to sleep at night,” Sills said. “I’ve been in New York my whole life. I’ve never seen it this cold.”

He showed off two new crew neck sweatshirts the mission gave him, one blue, and the other purple.

“I feel sorry for the older people, they have it real rough,” Sills said. “If they call they’re giving out hats and jackets at the front, it’s a rush.”

This isn’t 57-year-old Richard Bellamy Jr.’s first time braving the cold New York City streets. He left his hospice care last year after Hurricane Sandy hit. Last week he found warmth in the pews of the Bowery Mission.

“I spent the first polar vortex on the train,” Bellamy said. “I went into drinking to keep warm, drinking cans of beer, walking and reading my Bible, maybe a little weed.” If the doors of the mission were closed, Bellamy said he’d still be drinking, walking, reading and smoking to keep warm.

“A lot of the guys come in drunk,” Moyer, the nighttime operations manager, said. “They start talking loud and waking everybody up. I try to calm them down, but sometimes it’s overwhelming.”

With hundreds of men in such close quarters, it’s not surprising that they sometimes get overwhelmed with each other, or worse, catch each other’s coughs.

“Flu and colds are also going around because we can’t open the windows,” said Kathy Kiesel, the mission’s crisis intervention director.

As another week of extreme cold approaches, the Bowery Misson’s pews and dining room will likely be full again, despite the coughs and quarrels.