The New Homeless: Candido Gonzalez at New York's Bowery Mission
Candido Gonzalez worked for the City of New York for almost 19 years before he was laid off in October 2007. After six months without a steady paycheck, he could no longer afford to pay his rent and found himself in a situation he had never dreamed possible: he had no savings and no place to live.
Gonzalez, a 48-year-old divorced father of two, represents the often unseen human toll of the Great Recession. He was laid off during the first wave of New York City budget cuts -- making him one of the more than 100,000 municipal workers nationwide that have lost their jobs during the recession, according to a recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Today, Gonzalez lives and works at The Bowery Mission, one of the nation's oldest rescue missions, which houses 82 men and serves 1,000 meals per day to the homeless. Bright, articulate and hard-working, Gonzalez was given a job at the front desk (hence the bluetooth headset glued to his head during his shift). Since arriving at the Mission in September, he has been cheerfully greeting the homeless men who come there each day. Yet, despite his positive disposition, Gonzalez has had little to smile about over the past couple of years.
"It's been a hurdle both emotionally and psychologically," Gonzalez says. "My family, my pastor, my children – all of that has been a key factor in pushing me forward. And of course my faith in God has been a key factor in me making it."
A Life Turned Upside Down
In his previous life, Gonzalez served as a community coordinator at the Department of Sanitation's recycling bureau. Yet, despite 19 years of service, he was still only a "provisional" city employee, not a titled civil service worker, meaning he was among the most vulnerable when the city started cutting its budget. "When the recession and the budget cuts kicked in, it didn't matter how many years you had in the service, if you didn't have a title and were a provisional worker like myself, you were the first one to be let go," says Gonzalez.
When Gonzalez had to abandon his a studio apartment in the Bronx, he turned to his family for help. "I had no other choice but to depend on my family to back me up," he says. "I started staying with friends and family members, a week or two here, a week or two there. Thank God I have five siblings. But then it became a little bit of a burden on them – you know, they had their own issues, their own expenses, and you don't want to be an extra burden on your own family."
After about one year of relying on his family for a place to sleep, Gonzalez felt he could no longer burden them. (His two children -- ages 12 and 19 -- live in Queens with their mother.) With nowhere else to turn, Gonzalez went to his pastor, Al Camacho, at the Church of New Beginnings in the Bronx. "Pastor Camacho knew that I was going through some rough and tough times," Gonzalez said. "He said to me, 'Candido, you will not be left alone. You've got people who love you. You are not alone.'"
Camacho offered to take Gonzalez in at the Bowery Mission, where the pastor also works as Intake Coordinator.In September,Gonzalez arrived as a "visitor," meaning he's not formally a participant in the Bowery Mission's Discipleship program, but rather works there in exchange for a roof over his head.
"Being in the Bowery Mission, I've been able to see that you really don't appreciate what you have until you hit rock bottom," he says. "And being rock bottom right now at the Bowery Mission and servicing these people has been such a gratifying experience."
The Mission is a clean, orderly place that offers 82 beds and and provides job-training, tutoring, and GED study. To live there, however, means abiding by a strict set of rules. The men have to wake up by 5 a.m. and each has to work there in some capacity. No drugs, alcohol, or smoking is allowed and no violence or foul language tolerated.
In addition to providing food and shelter, there's also a 100-year old chapel where many of the Mission's regulars go for spiritual guidance. "This is a place for men to come and receive love and compassionate care," says Camacho. "It's a place where they get accepted just the way they are. And, with time, we start to work with them and feed them and give them clothes and a warm bed to sleep."
'The House is Packed'
The Bowery Mission has been helping New York's least fortunate for 130 years. Counting holiday surges, it serves about half a million meals to the homeless each year. Yet, with an estimated 50,000 people currently homeless in New York City, the Mission is only scratching the surface.
"Right now, the house is packed," says Camacho. On Thanksgiving, the Bowery Mission served more meals – about 8,000 – than in any year in recent memory, said Eden Gordon, the Mission's Coordinator for Public Relations. "The line wrapped around the block," she said. "It was crazy and sad all at the same time."
In some respects, Gonzalez is one of the lucky ones. Four months after arriving at the Bowery Mission, he is feeling positive about the future -- and his job prospects."Working here has given me insight into all the kinds of issues that people deal with on the outside, whether drugs and alcohol or mental health issues," he said. "You can see firsthand what it is that people go through out there, just trying to make it on a daily basis."
Gonzalez says he has two promising job leads -- he wants to work with the public in some capacity -- and hopes to start soon. "I see myself working in the next month."
To find out how you can help the Bowery Mission help New York City's least fortunate, please visit its web site.
More stories from The New Homeless series:
The New Homeless: Shawn Martin at the Coalition for the Homeless
The New Homeless: A Young Widowed Mom's Bleak Christmas in Camden
The New Homeless: Aspiring Web Developer Ends Up on San Francisco Streets
DailyFinance Readers Chip in to Help Homeless Mom in Camden