Refuge And Relief-Part 9 of STREET PILGRIMAGE

After spending the last three nights sleeping on a subway car, a wooden pew and a plastic chair, I was desperate for a real night’s sleep. Because of what a courageous man named Jerry McAuley did back in 1871, this night I found refuge and relief…

After a chilly day of panhandling, I decided to head to the Bowery Mission to have lunch. My insoles in my boots weren’t cutting it, so on the way there I bought some cushion pads to relieve my painful blisters. It actually caused it to hurt even worse and on top of that my back felt very stiff and sore. Living on the streets really does a number on your body. Living on your feet is physically grueling.

As I entered the dining hall at the Bowery, I discovered a young man who was losing it right in the middle of the crowd. Supposedly someone took his coat and he wasn’t going to leave without it. He was out of control, threatening and cursing the staff member who was talking to him. He was really up in his face and the situation was scary. The staff member said, “You don’t want to hit me. I’m the one trying to help you. If you hit me you’re going to have to hit all the people who stand behind me.” He called over security while he waited for other higher authority staff to arrive.

Eventually, the leader who showed up was able to get the young man to leave. I was super impressed at the patience and maturity of this staff member who was enduring the abuse of this hostile young man. I’m not sure that I could have done it. It takes a cool head and special skills to work with a volatile people group. When people are hungry, tired, and hopeless, anger can live very close to the surface. It doesn’t take much to cause them to boil over. That is why the outreach team at my organization, New York City Relief is trained in de-escalation.

Loving people well means making peace and keeping order so that everyone can feel safe. When I was leaving later, I saw the angry young man outside wearing his coat and hanging with some very shady looking people. One of the men that I met told me that before they had security, it was tough to sleep at the Bowery because drunk guys would cause a ruckus at night, but it had gotten better. I was glad to hear that and could see how it was working.


Later in the day I made my way over to get food and shelter at the New York City Rescue Mission. Originally called the McAuley Water Street Mission, this is the oldest mission in America. In 2018, The New York City Rescue Mission merged with The Bowery Mission. Now together as one, they can even do more to serve people struggling with homelessness in New York City.

The Bowery Mission is one of New York City Relief’s key partners that collaborates as a part of The Rescue Alliance.The Rescue Alliance is a faith-rooted collaboration working to end homelessness in New York City and restore the well-being of our neighbors on the street through compassionate, comprehensive and collaborative care. Other Rescue Alliance members include The Salvation Army and Hope For New York.

Christianity.com explains, “Jerry McAuley, a young man from Ireland was a troublemaker and his relative shipped him off to stay with family in New York. He ran away from this home and lived by stealing–drifting in and out of prison. When he was nineteen, authorities, only too happy to get him off the street, convicted him on trumped up robbery charges. He was sentenced to fifteen years in Sing Sing prison. For the first time in his life, Jerry found himself obeying rules. He saw it as his one chance to regain freedom. He learned to read.

“The event that transformed him from an “impossible” case to a soul winner was the testimony of a former pal who had become a Christian. He began reading the Bible and tried desperately to pray. Finally one night a supernatural presence appeared in his cell and a voice seemed to say, “Son, your sins which are many are forgiven.” McAuley did not change all at once. He still drank too much and fought. But that night he was converted.

Christmas Dinner Line Outside McAuley Mission, 1905

Christmas Dinner Line Outside McAuley Mission, 1905

“Pardoned by Governor Horatio Seymour, he went free on March 8, 1864. After a renewal of his faith, Jerry McAuley began to work for God. He saved money and on October 8, 1871, opened the Water Street Mission (left) in New York City to reclaim men like himself. Set in an old dance hall, it was the first rescue mission in the United States, the forerunner of many more.”

I came to check in for shelter at The New York City Rescue Mission and a man named Charles Blackburn was at the front desk. Because Charles knows me well, he embraced me with joy. I had tried to call Charles the week before to ask him to pretend that he didn’t know me when I saw him, but he had been out of town visiting his sick mother. Thinking quickly, I whispered in his ear what I was up to. Immediately, Charles told the staff around us, “This is Juan, he has come to us for help.” He introduced me to several of the security guards and asked one to take me into the chapel for intake.

charles b&w

Once upon a time, Charles (left) was homeless and addicted to crack for a 20-year stretch. No kidding, 20 years! He lived in Port Authority and survived by opening doors and carrying people’s bags for tips. One day the Holy Spirit touched him and he felt that he was being released from all the bondage and shame that had plagued him. Charles left Port Authority to go eat at a soup kitchen only to find it closed. Someone pointed to The Relief Bus across the street and said that he could get soup there. Not only did Charles get some killer soup, he received love, prayer and connection to a new life. Our outreach leader Sean Ballentine wrote a referral for Charles to receive shelter at the New York City Rescue Mission. God used that ministry to deliver Charles and give him new life and freedom. Today he works there, glowing Christ and loving every person who walks in off of the street. Amazingly, he started running with his friend and Bowery Chief of Staff Craig Mayes, and has now completed several New York City Marathons! You can see a powerful video of Charles telling his story here.

Charles marathon

Before Charles sent me into the chapel, he gave me a hygiene kit with soap for when I would shower later. Once in the chapel, I filled out all the necessary forms. A staff member took my photo and got me an official shelter ID. I would have to use this ID to scan in everyday between 4:30-6:16PM to keep my bed.

When I was registering to get into the shelter, multiple staff told me about the “Relief Bus people” coming tomorrow to give clothes and all kind of help. They said the people were really good and that I should definitely see them for help.

I headed upstairs to the bunk room where I was guaranteed shelter for 7 days. Amazingly, this mission provides over 70,000 nights of shelter a year! The bunk room fit about 100 men. I checked in with the floor captain Neal and he assigned me a bed. He also gave me sheets and towel. I was finally going to get a hot shower!

shelter id

I approached my bunk nervously seeing that I had someone underneath me and he was the mouthiest guy in the room–constantly talking. What was he going to say to me? As I put on my sheets he said that he was glad to see me because the last guy stank and had lice. I was glad to be welcomed.

After I enjoyed a luxurious hot shower and washed away the last three days of grime and sweat, I climbed up into my bed to relax. I felt kind of euphoric. I felt a kinship with the men in the room. It was probably just the shock of bathing and laying on a soft mattress after days of trudging around on the streets in the cold. When you are depleted, it is a serious matter to find refuge and relief.

2017 shelter beds

In the bunk room the word was going around about the outreach the next day, which was Thursday at 10AM. Many of them were encouraging each other to be there because it was really worth it. That made me feel so proud of our team because New York City Relief takes the lead on this innovative new outreach we call The Relief Co-op. It is done as a partnership through The Rescue Alliance.

Every week New York City Relief operates a clothing distribution at the New York City Rescue Mission. Before we took on this new outreach, 6 or 8 people would wander in once a week to receive a few articles of clothing. Now, this outreach has people lined up down the street to get in.

Once the doors open, over 100 people flood into the chapel where they are given a number to receive clothing and can enjoy coffee and doughnuts or cupcakes while they wait. That isn’t why people mob the place. The secret sauce of this outreach is the staff and 20 volunteers who treat our friends like guests of honor. When they are ushered into the clothing room, they receive a personal shopper experience with someone helping them to find sizes and styles that are right for them.

Screen Shot 2018-11-21 at 4.58.57 PM

Out in the chapel, volunteers sit down to get to know people and listen to their hearts. These same volunteers have clipboards where they can sign guests up for Life Care Visits. A Life Care Visit (left) is a one-on-one appointment with staff in the next room where they can get an assessment, resource consultation, prayer, referrals to help and a personalized action plan. Not only that, but within 48 hours one of the NYCR follow up team will reach out to them to see if the resource was the right fit and if they need more help or advocacy. See a great video about the Rescue Alliance collaboration here.

About 10pm in the bunk room, an announcement was made that the guys could head outside for a smoke break. I was left behind as one of the only non-smokers in the room. 15 minutes later the guys filed back in and the mouthy guy underneath me was grumbling about Charles–probably because he had told him that time was up. Then he said something amazing. This man had lived in Port Authority himself and hustled bags with Charles to support his crack habit. He said that he is here because he figures that if this place can help a guy like Charles, then they can probably help him too.

Neal and Juan

It took me a while to fall asleep that night, but I was at peace for the moment. Neal (left) was keeping an eye on the room from his desk in the corner. Earlier he had to kick someone out for making trouble which made me sad for the guy who had to clear out. On the other hand, I felt safe because someone was watching over me. Neal himself had once lived on the streets. Several weeks later I saw Neal at The Relief Co-op and I thanked him for protecting me and for letting God use him to minister to so many men. Charles and Neal were both living signs to me of how God is bringing beauty from ashes.

Stay tuned to read more in Part 10 of my STREET PILGRIMAGE titled, Brotherhood Of The Broken.

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  1. Esther Goetz Said,

    I still can’t believe you did this! Such good stuff Juan! I’m sure your life changed forever and now you are changing ours by including us on your journey!