Last Thursday Norma Rossi was dealing with a bout of bronchopneumonia and trying to take care of her son, who'd sustained a serious injury to his arm. In four days, Bread of Life, the food program she'd managed since the mid-'80s that serves roughly 250 homeless people daily, was scheduled for a forced conclusion when Rossi's unofficial lease on city property at 13th and Broadway ran out.
In 1984, then-City Manager Jack McGrory gave Rossi keys to the East Village lot?s chain-link fence and promised the property was hers to use until the city could find a more suitable spot to serve free meals to the city's homeless and working poor. That was 19 years ago and since then the dusty lot has become the city's last permitted outdoor food line. Each day Rossi, a 74-year-old self-described "hell-raiser" when it comes to homelessness, makes sure that a church group or other community organization—the Chargers worked the lot last week—is there to serve dinner, and sometimes breakfast to whomever shows up. She says she?s always kept the lot clean and discourages loitering.
Over at 13th and Broadway this past Sunday afternoon, Von, a snaggle-toothed black man with a nevertheless charming smile, and a friend who somehow endured the late-day heat in a heavy nylon jacket and who declined to give his name, sat on the sidewalk just outside the lot, leaning up against the chain-link fence, waiting for that day?s meal service to begin. The two disagreed about why, in a couple days, they'd no longer be able to get meals there.
"Most of the time people are peaceful," said the guy in the nylon jacket. But, he added, he thinks that the auto-detailing place next door had complained to the city about loitering problems. Von disagreed. It's the condos, he said. "They probably don't want this place here."
Western Pacific Housing, the real estate development firm building the Union Square condos adjacent to the lot has the official lease on the property and needs the lot to set up a staging area for construction purposes, said Sharon Johnson, coordinator of the city's Homeless Services Department.
Rossi, on the other hand, says she wasn't told explicitly why she could no longer use the lot, just that the feeding program would have to come to an end on June 30. She says she smells NIMBYism. "If you're going to sell condominiums, no one wants to look down on homeless people being fed."
Johnson said the city had set up a task force, headed by Ernie Linares, assistant director of Community Services, to find an alternate site for the food line. One year and 16 potential sites later, health issues and environmental concerns nixed all alternatives, leaving the food line with no place to go.
On Monday, a few hours before Bread of Life was scheduled to serve its last meal, Rossi put in a call to Capt. Thom Poochigian at the Salvation Army downtown—she had heard he was trying to get in touch with her. Poochigian offered to host the meals, at the organization's Seventh Avenue facility.
"I just made the decision today," he said when contacted Monday afternoon.
However, by Tuesday, things had changed. The city had gotten word of Poochigian's offer and informed him that he would need to apply for a permit, an often lengthy process, in order to offer meal service.
Poochigian said he's looking into getting a permit, but for now, unfortunately, the 13th and Broadway folks will have to find another place to go.