It is called “to go on a pilgrimage.” The expression is well known to Spanish speakers as well as some English speakers who are now using it to describe the way people in search of food go from one food pantry to another.
Teresa, for example, knows that on Saturdays she has to go to two places: in one she gets vegetables like cauliflower, cucumbers, tomatoes, and at the other, she gets whatever they are giving away. She follows a strict schedule: On Mondays, she gets up early to go get breakfast for her 12-year-old son on Wilson Avenue. On Thursdays, she goes near the Kosciusko School. On Fridays the path leads to Make the Road New York; on Saturdays to Irving Avenue and then to Menahan Street, and if she knows of any other place where food is handed out, there she goes.
It wears one down. “We’re left dragging our feet,” says Teresa, who preferred that her last name not be used. “Now we count every bill, every penny.”
Where before there were three people in her household working, two full-time and Teresa part-time, now there is only one. Her oldest son recently returned to working construction but only for a few hours, and only two or three days a week. Where there used to be three cell phones with unlimited data and calling, there are now only two lines to receive calls. Where there used to be cable TV, a fully stacked refrigerator, and some dollars to send to their relatives back home, now there is only the food they receive.
In Bushwick, Brooklyn, the need, the lines and the number of people looking for food seems not to have changed much since the summer, when lines stretched out of the food pantries, down sidewalks and around corners.
“The situation is kinda the same,” is how Luis Munive, from the Bushwick Leadership Center at El Puente, compares the current situation to a few months back. Then and now, those who are suffering most from lack of food in their homes and lack of employment are Latinos and undocumented immigrants.
Business impacts uneven
According to Assemblywoman Maritza Davila for the 53rd district that includes part of Bushwick, since the pandemic began at least 17 small businesses have closed in Bushwick and Williamsburg.
As in the rest of the city, retailers, hotels, and small businesses that require direct in-person interaction between people as part of their daily operations are most affected. “We receive the most feedback about ongoing issues from the restaurant and nightlife industry, although it’s evident that other sectors are also struggling to adapt to the circumstances,” emails Celestina Leon, the district manager of Brooklyn Community Board 4, which covers Bushwick.
“I don’t currently have data to demonstrate the profound needs of the neighborhood,” writes Julia Salazar, New York State Senator for the 18th District in which Bushwick is located. “I’ve noticed anecdotally that businesses in the northwestern part of the neighborhood, like closer to East Williamsburg and near the Jefferson Stop, recovered more quickly and are busier than businesses in the southern part of Bushwick, closer to Broadway.”
Salazar explains by email: “That’s likely due to preexisting trends; even before the pandemic, south Bushwick has been less gentrified and more economically distressed (the high turnover along the Broadway corridor demonstrates this).”
While the service industry and virtually all local businesses have suffered economically from the closures and the pandemic, industrial jobs have been affected as well, including those in the North Brooklyn’s Industrial Business Zone (the IBZ).
“Many of my constituents who were laid off and had to seek unemployment benefits, for example, are former workers in the film & TV industry in the IBZ. Quite a few businesses have had to permanently close,” says Salazar.
Efforts to help
Shortly after the pandemic hit New York City, many Bushwick neighbors and community organizers created Bushwick Ayuda Mutua (Bushwick Mutual Aid) to help people by providing groceries, masks, and medicine to those affected.
At the height of the pandemic, this organization received an average of about 1,000 calls per week. Today, says Samy Nemir Olivares, “We receive 600 calls per week.”
The bilingual bookstore Mil Mundos turned into a makeshift warehouse for distributing protective gear. Organizations such as Latinos Americanos Unidos, in addition to dealing with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic, have been dealing with the lack of water in their building.
“Recent construction across the street from their building caused their water source to be shut off, and the city told Latinos Unidos that it will cost thousands of dollars to repair and restore running water to their building as a result. We’re currently advocating on their behalf to have the water restored without any cost to Latinos Unidos, but in the meantime they’re still without running water,” Salazar said.
But it’s more than a pipe that’s broken in the neighborhood. “This is a structural crisis,” says organizer Plácida Rodríguez at Bushwick’s Make The Road New York. Rodriguez has been working as a leader in the area for over 20 years and this “is the first time I have seen such a decline. There’s nothing to buy shoes with. There is no money for children’s [Halloween] costumes. Food is scarce and all that is very frustrating.”
Asher Freeman, director of legislation for Councilman Antonio Reynoso, says there is acute need in the NYCHA buildings in the area, where “there are vulnerable populations all the time.” Food insecurity is the main problem that surfaced there, says Freeman.
Waiting on Washington
There does not seem to be a plan to counter the crisis beyond advocating for the approval of federal aid to send more relief money to families across the country. Beyond this hope, there is little on the horizon, which is even more disheartening for many undocumented immigrant families who were excluded from the first federal aid packages.
“The city can’t borrow money, so we can’t create new sources of income for money,” Freeman says. Davila stressed the same point, “We don’t have the money to cover the impact,” adding that, “We can’t do anything without the $3 billion federal package proposed by the Democratic Party. We can’t accept one cent less than that.”
For the entirety of the crisis, one of the two City Council seats representing Bushwick has been empty. Councilman Antonio Reynoso represents the northern part of the area but the southern side is part of the 37th District, which has been without a rep since Rafael Espinal departed in January for a new job. “This certainly doesn’t help. There is no political voice to advocate on behalf of the district,” says Freeman. Fortunately, Darma Diaz—who ran unopposed in last Tuesday’s election—will be sworn in within days to replace Espinal.
From state senators to community leaders, volunteers to Bushwick residents, no one believes things are getting better in the neighborhood. In general, there are some who believe that things have stabilized a bit, but others feel that the situation has gotten worse.
Both the neighborhood organizations that were created during the pandemic and those that have worked in the area for decades are trying to bear the burden of need that exists among residents.
Teresa says that what she gets from food pantries is just enough for the four people in her household to eat. Those meals address hunger but they don’t cure the fear—fear of the pandemic itself, and the fact that ICE is once again active in the city.