BOROUGH PARK — A deli owner who opened his heart – and his basement – 15 years ago to provide shelter to homeless men said the COVID-19 pandemic has not stopped him from doing what he believes God wants him to do.
“I have seven people down there right now,” Cándido Arcángel, owner of Arcangel Deli Grocery recently told The Tablet.
Arcángel says he set up a sleeping area in the basement to give homeless men a safe place to stay at night. He also feeds the men, giving them eggs for breakfast and sandwiches for lunch and dinner.
He’s been doing this for 15 years, although he now has to take precautions due to COVID-19.
“They have to wear gloves. No mask, no gloves, no staying here,” he said.
Borough Park has recently experienced a slight uptick in COVID cases, according to Mayor Bill de Blasio. Sunset Park, the neighborhood next door to Borough Park, has recently seen a relatively high rate of COVID cases — 6.9 percent — which is almost seven times higher than the city average.
New York has stepped up COVID testing in both Sunset Park and Borough Park. The two communities were targeted for the Test + Trace Corps program in which testing sites are set up in numerous locations, tracers visit residents to try to pinpoint the cause of an uptick and residents receive robocalls urging them to get tested.
Arcángel said to the best of his knowledge, his basement has remained a COVID-19-free zone. The precautions he takes have helped him avoid the virus, he said.
“The neighborhood, it has it, but here, no COVID. Not one person,” he said.
Arcángel, who is Catholic, is an immigrant from the Dominican Republic. He attends Mass at St. Catherine of Alexandria Church in Borough Park. He came to New York in the 1990s looking for work and got a job in the bodega. He eventually bought the place and became the owner.
He feels he is doing God’s work by giving a helping hand to the homeless. During the interview with The Tablet, he held up a cross. “I love him,” he said, pointing to Jesus.
The basement can accommodate up to 10 men at a time.
According to the New York City Department of Homeless Services, there were 54,601 homeless people living in shelters on Aug. 26 — 36,138 adults and 18,463 children.
The exact number of homeless living on the streets is harder to pinpoint. The city conducts a count every January, called the Homeless Outreach Population Estimate (HOPE), in which volunteers go out onto the streets to count the homeless. The 2020 estimate, which took place on Jan. 27, counted 3,857 homeless people.
Arcángel told The Tablet that a series of encounters with a homeless man 15 years ago was the catalyst that led to him opening his basement.
A man that Arcángel would see on the street started coming into the deli and hanging out there for long periods of time. The man had no place to go. Soon, more and more men were coming into the deli after seeing how kind Arcángel was to him. Finally, one of the men asked Arcangel if he could stay overnight. Arcángel agreed and that was the start of everything.
The makeshift shelter contains a small table, chairs, television, hot plate, and a small hose to use as a shower. The men sleep on pallet beds and in sleeping bags.
The basement has a separate entrance so the men can come and go without having to go through the deli. Anyone staying there is free to leave during the day but must be back before 10 p.m. when the deli closes.
Juan, an immigrant from Guatemala who is currently staying in the basement says Arcángel is “a wonderful man.”
Juan, who asked that his last name not be published, said he fell into homelessness after being unable to find a job.
“I started drinking. I started living on the street. It’s dangerous,” he said. “To be able to stay here, and feel safe, is everything.”
Arcángel is quick to point out that he isn’t the only person helping the homeless.
Borough Park is predominantly an Orthodox Jewish community and Arcángel points out that teachers and students from yeshivas have donated milk and bread to his shelter. In addition, he receives donated food from local church parishioners.