Thursday, November 20, 2008

Hempstead Long Island, Chelsea, NYC

This series came about from one thing leading to another. I traveled to Hempstead, Long Island because immigrant laborers who once had jobs working cheap labor no longer even have that.

Starting at 6 in the morning workers from South and Central America start lining up in front of the Home Depot on Hempstead, Long Island with the hope that they will find work. In more recent times cars or trucks would pull up, the workers would crowd around the interested party and offer their services, prices would be negotiated and off everyone would go. Work for these men began drying up a couple of years ago and has hit this community particularly hard. Before many of us even knew there was a downturn, let alone a recession, these guys where already feeling it.

I chose Hempstead because that is where the last presidential debate was held. The debate's subject was domestic affairs, and while Hempstead boasts one the the largest immigrant communities in New York, neither the candidates nor Bob Schieffer, the moderator, thought it was worth talking about during the 90 minute debate. (Nor was it in previous debates.)

The day I photographed on Hempstead 4 out of 150 men where hired. It reminded me of the Grapes of Wrath. One young man, lonely, cold, desperate and missing home walked up to a police officer, told him he was here illegally and hoped that he would be arrested and then deported since he could not afford the $700 it takes to fly back home. The police officer said he would return and pick him up, but he never did. While most men do not go to such lengths they do head to the local soup kitchen.

As I was leaving the Home Depot parking lot for the kitchen I made the mistake of driving up to a migrant line to ask for directions. Not seeing that I was the one in the car in the car, I was quickly surrounded by 15 men all looking at me intently, eager to work. When they discovered that I only wanted directions they walked away dejectedly, their shoulders hanging down. One man knew where I wanted to go and so gave me directions, but as he did, he did so haltingly. He was so expectant for work, his hope so high, that I was afraid he'd break down in front of me, but he stayed strong , told me where to go and I drove off angered with myself that I was so stupid to cause such a stir when, for these men a car that slows down with its window lowering means one thing and one thing only: work. Work, so that they can send money back home to their families and pay for a shabby roof over their heads here, a place they don't want to be anyway.

After retuning from Hempstead I was curious to know how the crisis is affecting people living in New York City. Unless one looks for it, it's hard to tell that there's a recession (or even worse as it's now looking) underway in Manhattan. While restaurants are not as full as they once where, there's still quite a lot of business and vibrancy in the city. But in a city of 8 million plus there are a lot of people who cannot afford to eat.

To get a better understanding of where things stand, I visit the Holy Apostles Soup Kitchen around this time of year annually. The kitchen is busy this year. On the morning I visited, the line of people waiting to be fed stretched around the block and continued for a long way down; a second barometer was that the line, in years past, would shorten within about an hour. This year it held steadily throughout lunch.

As of a year ago the kitchen was averaging about 900 people, that is now up to a median number of 1,100 a day and on the bad days when the month winds down and people are waiting for checks and benefits to come in, that number can increase to as many as 1,600.

The kitchen relies on donations and state money both of which are not coming in as they once did; with everyone cutting back the kitchen fears it too will have to cut services if not close down all together leaving thousands with nothing to eat.

Donations can be given here:

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