BOROUGH PARK — At least one bodega in Brooklyn does more than sell groceries. It also serves as a shelter for homeless men.
Cándido Arcángel opens the basement of his shop to homeless men so that they will have a warm and safe place to sleep at night. He is a Catholic from the Dominican Republic who attends Mass at St. Catherine of Alexandria in Borough Park.
“It’s not a five-star hotel, but it’s a good refuge when it’s cold,” Arcángel, 47, said of the basement, where he allows five to 10 men to sleep per night. “Down there, it’s warm, and when it’s too hot outside, down there it’s cool. And for those who are on the streets, it works.”
According to the Coalition for the Homeless, more than 62,000 homeless people are in New York City, many of them living in shelters. Still, about 4,000 homeless adults sleep on the streets, in public parks or on the subway.
Arcángel’s bodega doesn’t have the required certificate of occupancy to be converted into a shelter. But that doesn’t stop Arcángel, who pays to keep the store running smoothly and safely on his own.
“Fifteen years ago, there was a homeless man I would see on the street — and he would come here to the bodega,” Arcángel said. “And he would stay in here until he had to go … and then more and more and more came, and I had to tell them with hurt in my heart, ‘go.’ But they would say, ‘I don’t have anywhere else to go.’”
Finally, one person asked Arcángel to let him stay the night, even though Arcángel wasn’t yet the owner of the bodega. “I don’t have anywhere to live; it’s so cold outside, what do I do?” Arcángel recounted the man saying. “I told him to get on the train. But then I saw him walking out there, and I told him ‘Come on. I’m going to let you sleep here [in the basement].’”
Arcángel’s makeshift basement shelter is simple. It has a small table, some chairs surrounding a TV, a hot plate stove and a small hose for showering. There’s a separate doorway entrance for guests to come and go as they please, without always having to enter the upstairs store. The men sleep on pallet beds and sleeping bags on the damp, concrete floor.
It’s a cramped set-up, Arcángel said, but it does give the men a place to spend the night, while during the day, they beg, look for work and permanent housing.
Arcángel doesn’t charge, and the rules of the shelter are simple: Keep it clean and friendly. Plus, residents must be back before 10 p.m., when the bodega closes. During the summer, they are invited to grill in the back.
The guests drink, laugh and watch TV together, saying they have found respect and community with one another in the bodega. And for Arcángel, that’s what the shelter is about.
Arcángel came to New York from the Dominican Republic in the 1990s looking for work, and has been at the bodega for almost 30 years, eventually becoming the owner.
He invited his first homeless guest to stay in the basement shelter during the first month after he purchased the business 15 years ago. That man has since recovered, and has a new job and a family.
“I still do it because they don’t have anywhere else to go. Now, some of them have their independence and jobs,” Arcángel said. “There are others who have been here that now have families, who have gone from here, and are now doing even better than I am. I feel super happy for them, especially when they come back to say hello.”
Arcángel said people in the neighborhood and from church have donated food and goods, often anonymously. He doesn’t count how much he has collected or spent to keep things running.
“When they need bread, eggs, I give them,” he said. “It’s not enough just to help someone with money.”
For his efforts, Arcángel received an award from Univision New York, which called him the “angel of the homeless.”
“I do this [sheltering the homeless] because it comes from my heart. Because I know that when you do good, God sees it all. And when you do wrong, He sees that too.”
Wandy Felicita Ortiz contributed to this report.