BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Soulaymane Barry sat in front of a chalkboard, animatedly explaining basic English words — like “inside” versus “outside” — and grammar to a group of fellow African migrants. The men all sat around him on chairs with their shoes off. Elsewhere around the room, others munched on bread, sipped hot coffee. In a backroom, some knelt in prayer toward Mecca. Others were talking on the phone with family back home in West Africa. The main thing was — they were out of the cold.
Although it’s an indoor space, what’s been happening weekdays recently at the Earthchxrch (pronounced “Earthchurch”), at Third Street and Avenue C, is all out in the open. A former bank branch, it’s enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass walls, like a big, clear cube. If only the rest of what’s going on with the migrant crisis could be so transparent.
As New York continues to grapple with the influx of migrants from the open southern border, the East Village community has stepped up in a big way to help address the need, including the pivoting last month of the Earthchxrch into a “warming center,” open weekdays, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“We need warming centers everywhere,” said Bill Talen a.k.a. Reverend Billy. “The city’s just not doing it.”
For more than a year now, the small, 2,500-square-foot space has been home to Reverend Billy and his Stop Shopping Choir, the latter led by Savitri D, his wife. For much of that run, Talen — a performance-artist preacher / activist, and the singers have focused on environmentalism, including, notably, protesting the destruction of East River Park for the East Side Coastal Resiliency project.
They’ve also, at their Sunday performances, “sainted” iconic figures, like former Green Party candidate Malachy McCourt, the late actress Vinie Burrows and leftist bookstore owner Jim Drougas. Now, though, their focus is firmly on the migrant crisis that is gripping the city.
“The thing that [Mayor] Adams is saying, ‘Immigration will destroy us and it’s coming to a neighborhood near you,’ he’s testing the waters, he’s experimenting,” Talen said. “It’s so outrageous. He’s trying to talk New Yorkers out of being New Yorkers. I’m not an immigrant? Of course I am. We all are. And the wave of Africans and Venezuelans we’re seeing now is not as big as the waves of Irish and Jews we saw in the past. And today the city’s rich. … Some of them were standing in line [outside the reapplication center] in flip-flops. Brutal. This can’t happen.”
Every day, hundreds of men line up outside the former St. Brigid School, at Seventh Street and Avenue B, currently the city’s sole “reticketing and reapplication center” for single migrants. In September, Mayor Adams capped stays for single migrants at homeless shelters at 30 consecutive days. (As of October, migrant families get 60 days.)
At the E. Seventh Street center, the migrants are offered a free bus or plane ticket to anywhere in the world. If they choose to stay, they can reapply for shelter. Because beds are in short supply, though, the men often must return to the St. Brigid center day after day, in hopes of getting a new spot, so they won’t have to sleep on the street in the middle of winter.
Early last month, as outside temperatures started to drop to near freezing, a group of concerned East Villagers gathered at the Earthchxrch to brainstorm ideas on how to help out.
Jess Beck, a filmmaker and member of Reverend Billy’s choir, was a leader in the push to do something. Like others, she had noticed how the former St. Brigid’s School had transitioned from a homeless shelter for migrants, which is what it was last summer, to a reticketing and reapplication center, with long lines of mostly men stretching outside every day. Tompkins Square Park’s southeast corner also began to fill with migrants, who hang out there from morning to early afternoon.
“I walk my dog in the park. I would talk to them,” she said. “I created an Instagram page called ‘Meet Your Neighbors’; I started creating profiles of the people who I would meet. I’m including people’s abilities; I don’t want to get them in trouble for working without permits — but people can reach out to them.”
Beck said she has been deeply affected by the migrants’ stories of “trauma and treacherous journeys.”
The upshot of the first meeting, at which 30 people showed up, was the creation of East Village Neighbors Who Care. One focus was to coordinate food distribution for the migrants in the park, which is being done by different groups on different days, like EVLoves NYC, as well as by local restaurants. EVLoves is preparing meals at the Sixth Street Community Center. Trinity Lower East Side Lutheran Church also provides food. Everyman Espresso has been giving out coffee. An effort is also being made to keep the community fridge on E. Ninth Street and Avenue B well-stocked.
Around 150 volunteers all told are involved in the effort, working on various committees, from clothing to food. A GoFundMe quickly raised $8,000.
“Our answer to what the city’s doing,” Beck said, “which is clearly telling the migrants that they’re not welcome here, is saying, ‘You are welcome here.’ At the reticketing center, they’re offered a plane ticket to anywhere in the world. What East Village Neighbors Who Care is saying is ‘We are so happy to have you here.’”
‘We need warming centers everywhere.’
— Reverend Billy
Initially, it was decided to use the Earthchxrch as a headquarters for ongoing meetings on the issue. But, by the next meeting a week later, things rapidly progressed to the idea of using the place as a warming center. It’s currently the only one in the East Village. The space, in turn, has evolved into a sort of community center for the West African migrants.
“At some point in the meeting,” Talen recalled, “I said, ‘This place is empty weekdays, we don’t have anyone in here. Let’s open the doors.’ Savitri and I said yes right away.”
Johnny Grima, the leader of the ongoing East Village homeless encampment “Anarchy Row,” also pushed for the Earthchxrch to become a warming center, saying, “You’ve got the space, use it.”
“The first two days, there were 90 people in there, solid,” Talen recalled of how the chilled migrants flocked to the new warming center. “It was 12 degrees out.”
“The East Village just rose up [to help],” he said. “It was an amazing thing. We got $8,000 really fast, fundraised. … We send [the migrants] to Tompkins Square Park for lunch — offer them PB and J, coffee and tea, rolls here.”
“Sometimes they’d be there a few days as they wait for [a shelter bed],” Beck said of Earthchxrch. “And they have nowhere to sleep. Many have slept on the street.”
The migrants don’t sleep at Earthchxrch overnight, though.
When The Village Sun recently stopped by the warming center, it was packed, as usual. Donald Gallagher, a self-described radical faerie, sporting a purple and green beard, was accepting playing cards with a corner cut off from migrants entering at the door. Earthchxrch has been experimenting with giving out a deck’s worth of 52 cards to migrants each day as a way to keep a handle on the center’s capacity.
Several volunteers were helping run the place, including Charlotte Soehner, a native French speaker. The men mostly speak French, Arabic and a bit of English, in addition to African dialects.
Sunder Ganglani, a member of the Stop Shopping Choir, explained, “We try to have two choir representatives here at all times, and the community helps. All we can offer is warmth, coffee and the old bank boss’s office in the back, which is where we do childcare services, but where the guys can sleep and pray.”
Ganglani said the migrants pretty much manage themselves, removing their shoes mosque-style and leaving them all in one area, for example, and that there have been no problems.
Talen said Barry — whom he calls “Solomon” — is a star of the warming center. Barry, in return, praised Talen for being “a special person with a big heart.”
The 34-year-old is originally from Gambia but was living in Guinea with his wife and their two children before he braved the long journey to Turkey and Colombia by plane and then through Central America and Mexico by bus and taxi to America. Cartels and police shook down the migrants for money along the way.
He said he didn’t want to stay in Mexico, though could have.
“There’s the language barrier, and I have friends here,” he said. “Americans are far more open. They are open-minded. In Mexico, there is lawlessness, a lot of corruption, gangs. I love the United States. I love it here. I know there are so many challenges, but I love it.”
Barry said the military junta and discrimination against his tribe, the Fulani, in West Africa made it hard to thrive there. His brother was beaten twice.
“It’s corruption, corruption, corruption — to stay in power,” he said. “That’s all they do there.”
The Fulani actually migrated from Ethiopia to Guinea, which is part of the reason they face discrimination, he said.
“Americans are not stupid like that,” he said. “Migration is something that happens. You cannot stop that. All the migrants from Guinea at Earthchxrch are not the tribes in power.”
Asked whether he came to the U.S. more for asylum or for economic opportunity, Barry answered, “These are things that are inseparable. When I come here, I do not want to be a liability. I want to work. I want to do something.”
A self-described entrepreneur, in Africa he operated a well and toilets at a gold-mining operation. Before that he ran a mini-market in Angola, a country he said is mired in “an economic crisis.”
His wife is studying to be an accountant. Here, he’d like to go into agriculture.
“I love to be in nature. I love animals,” he said.
Told there is now a lot of marijuana farming in New York since it’s been legalized, Barry said, “No, I don’t do that. I’m a Muslim. I hate the smell. Smoking something right next to someone, that’s not respect. You are bothering other people. I used to sell cigarettes, but my conscience wouldn’t allow me to do it.”
Meanwhile, Beck is disappointed by what she calls the lack of response by the area’s elected officials.
“Assemblymember Harvey Epstein has been helpful in getting leads on other spaces that could be used [as additional warming centers],” she conceded, “but none of the local politicians are leading the charge.”
At the end of last month, local Councilmember Carlina Rivera, joined by Council Speaker Adrienne Adams, wrote to Zach Iscol, the commissioner of the city’s Office of Emergency Management, urging O.E.M. to open more reticketing and reapplication centers, to ease the burden on the East Village, as well as on the migrants themselves. Rivera said there are four sites in her district they are looking at.
Beck admitted she’s glad Rivera took that initiative. She added that East Village Neighbors Who Care is investigating local houses of worship as possible additional warming centers.
Alice O’Malley, another volunteer, said they are also asking the city to give EVLoves NYC a contract to provide food to the migrants, which the group has been doing already anyway.
“They have lots of volunteers but not enough money for food supplies,” she noted, adding, “Epstein’s office is collecting men’s coats, socks, gloves.”
Bob Perl of Tower Brokerage leased the former bank space to Earthchxrch last year after seeing a Reverend Billy show at Joe’s Pub. The self-described “liberal landlord” was blown away by the performance preacher’s righteous environmentalism.
“There are 60, 80, 100 of those guys in there a day,” he said of the warming center. “It’s quite a scene.”
Perl said, initially, a city agency — he’s not sure if it was O.E.M. — indicated it would fund the ad hoc facility, yet it never panned out.
“But Billy doesn’t care,” he said. “He wants to do it anyway. … It’s really bad optics for the city that people are freezing their tails off out there. They were supposed to come with social workers and interpreters; they said there’d be security. They went to a meeting. They said they had a budget. And then we never heard from them. And we’re doing it anyway.”
Opening the place up during weekdays has meant added costs for electricity, heating and cleaning.
“He’s using the space for social services,” Perl said of Talen. “He’s not paying market rent, but he’s paying rent. It’s mostly being used to clean up a city mess — and the city’s not putting a dime into this. But the humanitarian work goes on. The building pays six-figure taxes. Bottom line, the city should be paying for this.”
Right before The Village Sun visited the space, Perl had dropped by to deliver some winter coats.
He sees a thread running from Talen’s environmentalism to his aiding the migrants.
“It’s all connected,” he said. “It’s environmental degradation — and wars — that made people leave their homes.”
Also pitching in is Dr. David Ores, a neighborhood doctor who provides healthcare to locals at very low cost or based on what they can pay. His office is just two blocks away from Earthchxrch, which, along with East Village Neighbors Who Care, had just started referring migrants to him for free treatment.
“I call them ‘new Americans.’ I don’t like calling them migrants or immigrants,” he said. “And I think they should have access to healthcare because it’s a lot cheaper than when they have to be picked up by an ambulance to go to the ER.”
In just the first four days, Ores said he had seen five new Americans. One had conjunctivitis, one hemorrhoids, another a chest infection and a 60-year-old had COVID. Ores helped hook the last up with some free Paxlovid.
To communicate with the patients in French, he uses Google Translate on his phone.
Susan Stetzer, the district manager of Community Board 3, called the situation on E. Seventh Street and in the park “a humanitarian crisis.” She said that’s what she told a New York Post reporter who recently called her for a negative article on the park’s port-a-potties being trashed. But she said that was going on before the migrant influx. She noted that the St. Brigid site has added seven more port-a-potties, for a total of nine, in its courtyard that migrants can use.
As for the larger crisis, she said, “There’s a lot of little groups that are stepping up — because we have a great community. They’re just stepping up and doing what needs to be done. And it’s great. It’s why we all live here.”