NEW YORK –– Fr. Richard Roemer’s usual job is ministering to the impoverished people of the central south area of the Bronx.
After Hurricane Sandy, his job description has largely remained the same but has expanded exponentially.
The 43-year-old Franciscan Friar of the Renewal is vicar of St. Crispin Community in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx.
“There’s been no flooding damage in this part of the Bronx despite how close we are to the Hudson and East rivers,” he told Catholic News Service a couple days after Sandy made landfall. “Immediately next to us has seen some really bad damage, though. All of trees and telephone poles got knocked down.”
“It’s a miracle” it wasn’t worse, he said.
The friars’ St. Crispin compound is an oasis of Franciscan peace and spirituality in the middle of an economically devastated neighborhood.
It includes the Padre Pio Shelter, opened in 1989 to offer a bed, clothing and meals for 18 homeless men every night, and the St. Anthony’s Residence, which since 1993 has provided 65 units of temporary housing for other homeless men, many of whom suffer from mental illness or have little education, a history of violence or crime, and/or substance abuse problems.
The friars also take donated food and clothing to the streets, with the help of volunteers, driving around Manhattan until 3 a.m. handing out sandwiches, hot chocolate, coffee, clothing and toiletries to the homeless. The outreach is known informally as the “Jesus Run.”
Since Sandy, “requests for food have gone up,” Fr. Roemer said. “Our food pantry serves about 50 senior citizens with disabilities every month. These are people who would have difficulty standing in lines like they would need to at other food pantries.
“Most of the people we’re dealing with are looking for shelter, but we’re all full up here,” he said, “but we can offer them food and refer them to city-run shelters and other services for the poor because of the hurricane.”
As of Nov. 5, the death toll from Sandy was at least 106 in the United States, two in Canada and 67 in the Caribbean. The Associated Press reported that about 1.4 million people were still without power, down from a peak of 8.5 million. Of those, about 800,000 were in New Jersey, down from 2.7 million, and about 530,000 in new York, down from 2.2 million.
Of other states affected by the massive storm, West Virginia and Pennsylvania still had 53,000 and 32,000 residents, respectively, without power. In Connecticut, the figure was 35,000.
Early damage estimates put Sandy’s cost in the range of $30 billion to $50 billion.
“We’re chipping in to help wherever we can. We also organize groups to help people in need,” Fr. Roemer told CNS.
“We’re working with people who are alone without any family support. There are people in good areas who are now impoverished and they need our help,” he said. “We do outreach to a lot of places including the south shore of Long Island and Lindenhurst area. We also help in Westchester and throughout New Jersey.”
He said the friars and Franciscan sisters who minister in the New York Archdiocese and in other dioceses will help out wherever they are needed.
In southern Manhattan’s Bowery neighborhood, the Catholic Worker movement, founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in 1933, operates two Houses of Hospitality –– Mary House, which assists women, and Joseph House, which helps men and operates the daily soup kitchen.
The two facilities were spared the worse ravages of the tidal surge.
Because of Sandy, food supplies were running low “as most of the people upon whom we rely can’t get food to us but we have enough for now,” said Mary Lathrop, 65, a volunteer administrator at Catholic Worker.
When she spoke to CNS, the electricity was out and the two houses had to rely on gas stoves and everyone was eating by candlelight.
“Frankly, I like it better than those fluorescent bulbs we usually use. It’s much more intimate and offers a family atmosphere.”
“We’ve been very resourceful,” she added. “Without refrigeration, we’re mostly serving soup since vegetables can last longer than meat. And, of course, there’s always canned foods.”
For the homeless, the deprivation caused by Sandy that has left tens of thousands of people without basic necessities, the situation is simply more of the same.
“The homeless being helped at the Catholic Worker have been living with these conditions ever since they started living on the streets,” explained Lathrop. “Some from even before that when they still had homes.”
“They don’t have electricity. They don’t have food and water. They carry what they own. They don’t have a roof over their heads. Sandy has been a great leveler. This is how the poor normally live,” she said. “I think this disaster is a wakeup call for a lot of people about how the other half lives.”
Fr. Roemer said St. Crispin’s normally asks its guests to leave for most of the day and return only for meals and to sleep there at night, but immediately after Sandy, “because of the inclement weather and the massive destruction,” he said, they were allowed to stay in for a couple of days.
“During this time, we invited the men to join us for Divine Office and for daily Mass,” which “developed a strong sense of brotherhood among these men,” Father Roemer said. “They focused during their prayer time to pray for the needs of others suffering because of Sandy. It sort of happened spontaneously.
“These are poor men who are already homeless and they were worried about the suffering going on around them,” he said.