A Shelter in the Bronx Where the Homeless and the Friars Shelter Together

Zoé Chevalier | zc2504@columbia.edu

Photo by Friars of the Renewal

On a sunny spring afternoon, a dozen men stand around a cornhole game. The excitement is palpable. On a video of the event, they are laughing, screaming and high-fiving each other while a loudspeaker projects the voice of the organizer. The video slows down to enjoy the gripping moment when the bean bag-like object enters the goal. Points are scored. The excitement builds. Things seem normal. But upon closer look, this group of friends consists of two very different populations: Franciscan friars, in their traditional grey habit, and homeless men.

The video was shot in mid-April by one of the missionaries at the Saint Anthony Shelter for Renewal on East 156th Street in the South Bronx. The game takes place in the courtyard area of the complex that was once a Catholic school. It has been transformed to host two friaries (St. Crispin and Our Lady of the Angels), a homeless shelter, a youth center and an auditorium. Friars and guests live in a community with each other, but the COVID-induced quarantine has intertwined their lives more than ever.

The men gathered at St. Anthony’s are an unusual response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The friars have chosen to be close to the men they serve, in effect quarantine with them until the danger passes. While they share meals, prayers and recreation, they do their best to maintain social distancing rules.

It has been something of an adjustment, both for the friars and for the homeless men. The friars have to contend with serving three meals a day, and keeping the shelter running around the clock. The guests have had to follow strict rules about drugs, alcohol and even bedtime. In the process, they have become a community.

“It’s been a challenge for them and for us, but there is a feeling that we are all in this together,” says Father John-Mary, one of the friars.

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The Saint Anthony shelter is part of the Franciscan Friars of the Renewal, a community that was founded in the Bronx in 1987 by Benedict Groeschel and seven others. As Catholics, the friars follow the direction of the Pope, and their main values are those of poverty, chastity and obedience. But the friars distinguish themselves by continuing the tradition of St. Francis of Assisi, known for his life of penance, charity and solitude.

“We live things a little more intentionally or intensely,” says another member of the friary, Father Mark-Mary. The friars devote themselves to a life of poverty, living in the hardest neighborhoods, begging for food and depending on donations for survival. They have no personal bank accounts, little technology and devote themselves to serving the poorest. If a neighborhood got “too nice,” the friars are asked to leave to a more impoverished community, according to Mark-Mary.

The friars believe in a hands-on approach to helping the poor. “The Gospel tells us to take care of our neighbor,” says John-Mary, adding that he believes in the approach of “Give them a sandwich, not just a blessing.”

This Franciscan order has 15 friaries and about 140 friars around the world, including Ireland, Nicaragua and Honduras. At the St. Crispin Friary in the Bronx, where the shelter is located, there are about 10 friars, 20 missionaries, volunteers who come to live in the community for a year, and 30 guests, in need of shelter. It is hard to get an exact number because the friars seem to live in a number-free community, there are no limits on how many friars can join, there will always be room for one more.

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Father Mark-Mary, has been with the community for 11 years, and although he lives in the other friary, Our Lady of the Angels, he now has to help out at the shelter. Mark-Mary is usually in charge of a youth program, teaching catechism to children of the neighborhood, but since the pandemic started, the complex closed its door to the outside, and the classes transitioned to Zoom. Now, he works one day a week at the shelter.

His interest in the Franciscan order came in a rather unexpected way. One night as a teenager in Orange County, California, where he grew up, Mark-Mary says he was eating at In’n’out Burger, a classic fast-food chain in California when a young man approached him and started talking about this unusual order. He was talking about “hard-core Franciscans who sleep on the ground,” said Mark-Mary, and his interest was piqued. Fresh out of college, Father Mark-Mary came to join the friary.

Joining the order is a serious process. First, the applicant does a few phone interviews with the friars, in order to assess his interest. The next step is to come visit. Once a month pre-quarantine, the friars would welcome the potential new recruits for an introduction into the friar’s life. In May, applicants are invited to stay for a couple of weeks, in which they are required to take a psychological exam, to make sure that they can take on a life of penitence and service.

Postulants then start in September for 10 months, after which they are allowed to leave or go on to Novitiate, during which they start wearing the habit and choose a religious name. Four years later are the final vows. The final step, if the new Friar wants to become a priest, is to study for another four years of seminary, after which they can be ordained.

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This strict life is often very different from the one their guests live. The Friars pray together four to five hours a day, according to Father Mark-Mary, and most of their remaining time is spent serving others at the shelter, the food bank or the youth program that they run. There is often not much time for leisure, and the commitment is complete and life-long.

Before the quarantine, Jorge, one of the guests at the shelter, would spend his days walking around the neighborhood, take the subway downtown and go to WholeFoods, get a coffee, sit in the park and watch a movie, he would wait for the time to pass until he could get back to the shelter. Some other guests spent their days at the library, where they could watch movies on their phones or play chess together. Others would go to work or look for a job or apartment. Some had social workers meetings and programs to go to.

Every night, Jorge would take the mandatory breathalyzer, and drop his belongings in box 23. These were things like food and pills that were not allowed in the rooms, he also had to give away his phone, which stayed in the office for the night. The men’s belongings are often searched for drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, and any “risqué publications,” all forbidden according to John-Mary. Brother Patrick explained that “It is a catholic environment, guests are immersed in the norms of the community,” although they do not have to be catholic to be offered a room.

Jorge would then have dinner and activities with the men, and retreat to his room. At 9 p.m. the lights would go off and come back on at 5:30 a.m. the next day. Jorge is not a morning person, and having to do all his chores, shower, eat breakfast and be out the door by 6:45 was always a struggle. He would often forget his wallet behind.

These different lifestyles often clash. “I don’t like my freedom taken away from me,” says Jorge, laughingly, adding that he is very grateful the friars offered him a place to stay, and that “They are very strict but there is a reason why (…) I’ve never heard of a shelter like that.”

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The shelter runs on order, discipline and a fine-tuned schedule. But now everything has changed. Having the men stay in around the clock while maintaining social distancing rules has been a challenge. The guests now eat in shifts, to avoid being all in the same room at the same time, they wear masks, and most importantly, are not allowed out of the complex.

Some rules have changed during the quarantine, so the men are allowed to have their phones during the day, and smoke in the little garden outside the shelter. Jorge used this opportunity to connect to his sister’s Netflix to watch action movies and play games on his phone to avoid getting bored.

To occupy the guests, socially distanced movie nights are organized every other day, where they watch “family-friendly movies” found on Pureflix, a Christian version of Netflix.

The friars even buy guests cigarettes, but only three or four are allowed a day. Jorge, who just left the shelter to live with his mother, laughs during our interview: “I’ve already smoked three since we started talking!”

The shelter structures and discipline is good for him, Jorge thinks, but he also struggles with the added control exerted on him during the quarantine. Now he only gets out once a week for his medical visit, driven by one of the friars. Before leaving the complex, he had to explain why his appointment was necessary and let one of the friars speak with his doctor. “I didn’t sign up for that,” says Jorge. He was uncomfortable with his doctors learning that he was homeless.

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Because of high demand, Jorge’s spot at the shelter was not easy to get, and he was willing to sacrifice some liberty in order to be part of this special community. When the quarantine started, he had already been there for five months but decided to stay at the shelter.

Jorge used to be a cook, but his life took a turn when he lost his job due to a disability that made it hard for him to walk and breathe. He would drop hot pans in the kitchen, shaking, he would put himself in danger, and was eventually fired. Without this income, he soon wasn’t able to pay for rent, and his landlord decided to take him to court. Jorge packed his belongings in a big bag and left his Bronx apartment, where he had been living for the past 12 years with nowhere to go. He headed to 14th street and spent a week sleeping in a park, in the subway, or on a makeshift bed in front of the Salvation Army.

He relied on people he met on the streets to figure out his next move: “I had never been in this environment, I had never been homeless before,” he says. One day he met a man who told him about a shelter on Lafayette Street, he headed there and stayed a few nights. There he met another man, who had just come from the St Anthony shelter, and got kicked out because he started using again. There might be a free bed now he said, Jorge trekked to the Bronx to try.

At 6:30 p.m. every evening, men lined up at the door of the Saint Anthony Shelter for Renewal in the Bronx, coming back to one of the 30 beds available for the night. Some had been there since 9 a.m. to get one of the few openings when someone leaves, usually after a six months stay. When the doors opened, they were breathalyzed and had access to a bed, a hot dinner and breakfast. At 6:45 a.m. the next day they would be on their way in the streets of New York City, living their lives for 12 hours before curfew.

Jorge came five days in a row around 5 a.m., he wanted to be first in line in case a bed opened up. On the fifth day, there was an opening and after a negative breathalyzer, he was admitted. In the meantime, he heard that his friend who told him about St Anthony died of an overdose. “He was a good guy,” says Jorge, who himself had been clean for three months “I know what addiction does, ” he added, “I get high in my head and I end up alone, miserable, broke and unhappy.” The shelter provides solace from these problems and a place to reconnect with his Catholic upbringing.

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Easter was not the most festive this year. Usually, all the friars from across the friaries get together and have a nice meal for Holy Thursday, this did not happen this year. Although the liturgy was the same, “it was all much simpler” said Father Mark-Mary. No flowers decorated the Church, and the doors were not open for Sunday mass. The music was much simpler too, without the usual 15 musicians who would usually come.

But despite their best efforts to avoid any outside interaction, COVID did not spare the friary. Michael Kearney, 23, a missionary has had to quarantine in his room for two weeks as he showed mild symptoms. In an interview, Kearney said that the biography of Mother Theresa, and the tomato soup and grilled cheese prepared by Jimmy, the cook, got him through. He also read the NY Times and watched a lot of Terrence Malick movies.

Five friars have had the virus, including Father Luis, the head of the shelter who Jorge describes as “the rock.” Two missionaries also showed symptoms. The six-floor of the friary has then been converted in a makeshift quarantine zone, where the men isolate and are brought meals three times a day.

Another source of worry was food supplies. The friary usually depends on a New Jersey Food Bank, but deliveries have stopped with the fear that their elderly drivers would be at risk. So others stepped in to deliver food.

Somehow Jimmy, the cook for the shelter always manages. “He’s the best,” says Jorge, adding that during the Holidays, thanks to a donation, all the men were treated to lobster tails and filet mignon. He still remembers it with emotion.

But the most heartbreaking to Father John was to see one of the volunteers who usually help out at the shelter come back to use the Food Bank for himself. After losing his job, he now needed the friars to support him, too.

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Despite all this, the friars are keeping a hopeful attitude. Father Mark-Mary cited the long tradition of Franciscans serving and dying during plagues and says that it is expected to continue helping others. “We have given our life to suffer with those who are sick and vulnerable,” he says.

Jorge left the shelter a week ago and now lives with his mother in the Bronx. He missed being able to attend mass at the friary for Easter but enjoys the new found freedom he gets from walking around the neighborhood every day. He found a subsidized apartment and looks forward to moving in when the quarantine ends.

“I have been blessed,” says Jorge, who strengthened his Catholic faith at the shelter. “I speak to God in a normal basis, like he was a normal person.”