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This is How ​New York’s Record-Breaking Homeless Population Celebrates Thanksgiving

Gotham now lays claim to Great Depression levels of homelessness, with ​nearly 60,000 humans sleeping in shelters, on the street, or underground. Can a new mayor change the game?
28.11.14

The Bowery Mission, Thanksgiving Day 2014. Photos by Patrice Helmar.

Ah, Thanksgiving. What a day for our nation's immigrant past, as we band together to massacre  ​46 million turkeys in 24 hours, just to keep our stomachs full and warm. It is a day to give thanks, but, more importantly, an occasion to gorge and fake-watch football with estranged uncles and argue about Obama and the Ferguson ruling with determined aunts. This is truly a special time of the year.

But the grim reality is that Thanksgiving 2014 represents a landmark occasion for New York City's poor. Gotham is ​now experiencing  ​Great Depression levels of homelessness, with ​nearly 60,000 humans sleeping inside shelters, on the streets, or down below in subway stations every single night - around 25,000 of them children. The numbers represent a culmination of the past five years, in which New York's banking and other major industries have done great even as poverty has accelerated.

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Last year, the Bowery ​Mission, one of the oldest soup kitchens and shelters in the city for single adults, housed 200 people a night during the deathly cold of the polar vortex. But this past week, in the midst of a November that had ​people second-guessing Mother Nature, the Mission gave out 225 meals and beds to 128 homeless individuals. "This is a surprisingly high number this early in the season," spokesperson James Winans told me during a tour of the Mission. "And it is definitely alarming."

The Bowery Mission, Thanksgiving 2014

To handle the overflow, emergency shelter provisions have leaked out from the century-old chapel to the dining room. The week of Thanksgiving is the busiest for the Mission, too, as it preps for its 135th Thanksgiving dinner, when nearly 600 volunteers will serve over 1,600 guests in the chapel area. "Folks feel disconnected, unwelcomed, unwanted; this holiday can be a sore spot for them," Winans said. "But we see this incredible outpouring of generosity centered around Thanksgiving."

In the lead-up to the big day, Trevo​r Mathura, the head cook, has no time to return home to Queens, so he sleeps an hour or two at the shelter each night. He's in charge of an enormous operation, one that was already in full swing when I visited Monday. Volunteers from North Carolina were chopping up two tons of potatoes, and another batch were stationed in the back, seasoning the old bird. And even with Thanksgiving to plan for, Mathura and his frenetic, runner-filled kitchen still have to serve breakfast, lunch, and dinner 365 days a year.

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"I'm trying to beat my own record, and finish it in less than 96 hours," Mathura happily told me, before showing off ice-cold storage rooms, stacked to the brim with turkeys, stuffing, and yams. "Thursday morning is the most beautiful day of the year for me."

The Bowery Mission, Thanksgiving 2014

Last year, NYC Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to see Mathura's work in action at the Bowery Mission. This took a certain amount of gall given that the billionaire's  ​Luxury City governing model saw income inequality go through the roof.

According to  Patrick Markee, a spokesperson with the Coalition for the Homeless, "This crisis level of homelessness is largely a result of two things: affordability in this city, and the failed policies of the Bloomberg administration".

That criticism spans as far back as 2004, when Mayor Bloomberg vow​ed to make the chronic homeless an endangered species in New York by the time he left office. Instead, 36,000 homeless a decade ago mushroomed to 58,000 last year. In fairness, Bloomberg presided over an unprecedented recession that ravaged state and municipal budgets, stunting growth on all domestic fronts across the country. But critics argue he didn't need to cut Advan​ta​ge, a rental subsidy program, in 2011. According to homeless individuals I've canvassed in the past, that's the biggest reason one in every 150 New Yorkers now lives on the streets.

"That's when it all came apart," Charles, a homeless man from Brooklyn, told me. "Everyone out here asked, 'How are we supposed to support ourselves?'"

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Late in his final term, Bloomberg felt compelled to deny that New Yorkers were sleeping on the street.

The Bowery Mission, Thanksgiving 2014

This Thanksgiving is the first under Mayor Bill de Blasio, who was inaugurated just weeks after the New York Times published their "Invisible Child" tale, which followed the life of Dasani Coates, a 12-year-old homeless girl in Brooklyn. She made an appearance at City Hall on New Year's Day, when de Blasio assumed Bloomberg's job, a sign that the billionaire was gone, and things might now be different for the city's homeless brethren. "We are called to put an end to economic and social inequalities that threaten to unravel the city we love," de Blasio said in his inauguration speech.

Since that January morning, the progressive mayor has prioritised and filled 750 public housing units with homeless families - a reversal of a Bloomberg policy - and taken 400 homeless children out of the shelter system, Dasani among them. De Blasio's office has also expanded Homebase, a preventative program for the homeless, and re-opened federal Section 8 vouchers for 280 homeless families. But most importantly, in August, the mayor announced a downsized resurrection of Advantage; a "start" that will look to transfer nearly 4,000 families into subsidised apartment housing.

The Bowery Mission, Thanksgiving 2014

So this Thanksgiving marks the first time in years that homeless families across New York City are in the process of being moving out from the strained shelter system. A letter in the mail from the city, notifying you that you will no longer be homeless, is probably the best reason for holiday cheer, period.

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"This is a new mayor, who doesn't follow the Bloomberg style," Markee said. "And the good news is, we have seen important reforms from the de Blasio administration."

But the clock is ticking. The homeless shelter population has risen 9 percent citywide between January and November - de Blasio's first nine months in office. Still, Markee explained, the 4,000 families seeking rental subsidies have yet to move into their new homes, meaning any improvements will not be seen in the numbers until next year.

For this reason, Megan Mayes, the communications manager of the New York City Rescue Mission, said that her organisation is shifting its focus to collaboration with City Hall. Such is the thrust behind the Rescue Mission's Help the Homeless app, which is the first of its kind to combat homelessness. Basically, it provides any Joe Schmoe with the city resources available, so if they come across an individual who is homeless, that person can input certain data - gender, age group, etc. - and find out where the nearest appropriate shelter is.

"We're trying to work with the city, and not be as much as a silo," she told me. "We're approaching homelessness from all ends, concentrating on prevention and transitional housing." When asked if this will have the effect desired on the numbers, Mayes told me, "We really hope".

Founded in 1872, the Rescue Mission just opened its first women's wing this year; the dormitories inside are lined with cots, their walls colored by donated paintings from local artists. It is also currently doubling its size to include 250 beds, which will hopefully stem the notable influx from these past few weeks. Like the Bowery, which is located just a few blocks north, the chapel in the Rescue Mission has seen more cots than pews recently.

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Located in Chinatown, the Rescue Mission holds its Turkey Day feast the Monday before the holiday. This year, the Mission served 1,000 meals to the hungry, kicking it off with a press conference that included Kathie Lee Gifford, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, and Rescue Mission CEO Craig Mayes (not to be confused with Megan). When I visited the next day for lunch, many of the shelter's men who had worked the feast expressed a delighted exhaustion from the night before.

The Bowery Mission, Thanksgiving 2014

As for Thanksgiving Day, the festivities held by the city vary among its 250 shelters, as some are operated by nonprofits and others by the city itself. "Many of our programs do something for Thanksgiving or near Thanksgiving," Christopher Miller, the spokesperson for the city's Department of Homeless Services, told me via email. "Remember, many of our clients do have family and will probably be visiting them. There are special events that organisations hold for shelter children. So there's a lot going on."

On Tuesday, 200 homeless children gathered on the U.S.S. Intrepid, stationed on the Hudson River, for a hot Thanksgiving meal, while Mayor de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, worked at a food shelter in the Bronx. Last week, McCray spent the day  handing out turkeys in Bed​-Stuy, telling reporters, "Now is the time for us all to think about what we can do as a city to address this growing problem".

After all, the number of hungry and homeless human beings that we have in New York is simply astounding. And that fact - a million times more so than Black Friday, Cyber Monday, the Cowboys-Eagles game, and the Pilgrims - is what this godforsaken holiday is all about, even if the goodwill is ephemeral.

"The big thing we're worried about is that the homeless continue to get the help they need, even after Thanksgiving, when a lack of public attention resumes," Markee told me. "But it's a fundamental fact that New Yorkers do care about their homeless brothers, especially on this day."

Follow John Surico on ​Twitter and Patrice Helmar on ​Instagram.