For Daro Carter, the coronavirus pandemic feels like homelessness, but Thanksgiving at the Schenectady City Mission feels like hopefulness.
Carter said social distancing is the hardest thing for him, and the most familiar. “It’s tough. I miss the contact. The people. The hugs. The smiles on the face. It’s very frustrating to me right now,” he said. “Even, like bein’ in fear of catchin’ this damned disease. I don’t want to catch it, but I’m sick and tired of being distanced from people, so it’s strugglin’ right now with this COVID thing here.”
Carter has lived at the Schenectady City Mission for the past two years, and for the last year has worked part time for the faith-based organization. He said he had to move to Schenectady to escape a 50-year cycle of homelessness and drug addiction living in Albany.
“I was homeless, jobless, livin’ there and eaten out of garbage cans, feelin’ hopeless — started loosing my spirit,” he said.
“I came to get my spirit back intact, get back in God’s will.”
On Thursday Carter, dressed in a forest green sweatsuit and a lime green face mask, helped organize a socially distanced line of Hamilton Hill neighborhood residents outside the shelter’s main dining hall. He handed out masks to people as they stood on floor markers six feet apart and followed the curving path through chained-together line stanchions, newly bought, freshly painted yellow.
Carter said the Schenectady City Mission turned his life around.
“They accepted me in, listened to me, let me know I have a voice,” he said. “I didn’t know I have a voice. They care about me. They gave me hope. Come to find out, I’m a caring person.”
Carter handed face masks to a tall man and two children, a boy and girl, no taller than the two men’s knees.
“Today is great, it’s a blessing to see the smiles on people’s faces, you know what I’m saying?” Carter said.
Zachary Douglas, head chef at the City Mission, said he prepared 180 turkeys Thursday, equating to about 2,200 take out meals — most included mashed potatoes, gravy, vegetable rolls, cranberry sauce, pie, apple cider and a box of Andes mints — and another 200 or so meals for the 91 residents of the shelter and the 25 staff and 15 volunteers who worked the Thanksgiving Day meal.
Douglas said cooking under COVID-19 restrictions means extra work and the endurance needed to stand up in a hot room wearing a face mask.
“It’s trying, but you know, you’ve got to adjust,” he said.
Like Carter, Douglas also lived at the City Mission before becoming a full-time staff member.
“I’ve been workin kitchens since I was 10 years old,” Douglas said. “I love working here for the sole purpose that I get to give back. I was also in the streets, for a time. I struggled with drug addiction for years. I got myself cleaned up and decided to be in a place where I could always give back to people.”
Michael Saccocio, executive director of City Mission of Schenectady, said Carter and Douglas are typical of the 40 percent of the organization’s staff who were once or current residents at the facility.
“That’s kind of the celebration within the celebration,” he said Thursday.
He said currently the men’s shelter has had to par down its beds from 75 to 65 to ensure social distancing. He said 66 men slept there Wednesday night. He said the mission’s nine apartments for women and children are full with 25 residents.
Saccocio said the organization has had to spend tens of thousands of dollars on COVID-19 equipment and make changes to its operations to fulfill its mission as a designated Code Blue shelter, providing housing of last resort when the temperature drops below 32 degrees.
Although the City Mission did receive a federal U.S. Cares Act Paycheck Protection Program loan of between $350,000 and $1 million, to safeguard the jobs of its 98 staff members, the organization under normal circumstances operates on private donations.
“I don’t know the exact cost on today — it’s thousands — but the people who support us, even for Thanksgiving, they know what they’re doing,” Saccocio said. “I tell people, after this dinner, we’re serving breakfast tomorrow, and we’re going to be serving four meals a day.”
Saccocio said that in 2019 the City Mission provided a combined 32,000 nights of lodging and 250,000 meals.
Lisa Ouellette, originally from Arizona, received one of the takeout meals Thursday.
“All of my family is in other states. I used to volunteer here,” she said.
Ouellette said she wouldn’t say she’s out of work, having recently volunteered at the county Board of Elections and the Schenectady Inner City Lunch Program, but the pandemic has been nothing if not educational for her. “I’ve read a lot of books,” she said.
She said the Schenectady City Mission is a vital resource for the Hamilton Hill Community, and the rest of the city.
“I no longer need to live there, but they’ve always got good food,” she said. “The mission, it’s a beautiful place. God is doing wonders.”
Saccocio on Thursday said the City Mission was on pace to distribute over 800 meals, more than the typical 600 it would serve between takeout and a big community sit-down Thanksgiving during a normal year. He stood next to dark blue bags with name tags with corresponding meal counts, some for families of as many as seven and some for no more than one.
“We had a good routine of what to do for many years on Thanksgiving, and we’re reinventing it, so it was really weeks of just thinking of how do we serve everybody who needs to be served, but also to keep it safe, keep people socially distant,” he said. “Obviously, COVID-19 has gotten worse since we planned all of this, so we had to just keep on intensifying our procedures.”
And the City Mission’s residents must endure the stress of the rising COVID-19 positive numbers, as the pandemic makes them more vulnerable to the social and economic forces that led them to the shelter.
Carter said he knows he must intensify his efforts to keep his spirit strong and his demons away. He described how the City Mission helped him find his spirit, and why he knows he must never lose it again.
“I didn’t know that my voice could impact somebody else’s, their hope, their spirit.”