An external shot of the Whole Foods Market. Photo courtesy David Shankbone.
As the rain and cold bombard the Bowery along with the rest of New York, the city’s homeless population is forced indoors. Many of the record numbers of homeless have found shelter in Manhattan’s largest supermarket, The Bowery Whole Foods.
While shoppers are loading their carts with craft beers, artisanal breads and gourmet cheeses, the less fortunate among us are upstairs taking advantage of the dry, sunny café area to spend the day dry and warm. One observer visiting the café saw a man sleeping on the floor in the fetal position, another barely conscious in what appeared to be a drug-induced haze, and others who seemed drunk or mentally ill.
The vagrants found a haven in the Whole Foods Café where there is a microwave and Wi-Fi they can use for free, clean bathrooms available for the cost of a cup of coffee, and if not quite a welcoming, but at least a tolerant attitude towards their presence.
The giant, up-scale supermarket opened in 2007. At 71,000 square-feet Whole Foods is the largest market in Manhattan. It takes up an entire city block between Chrystie and Bowery, and has 600 employees on the payroll. Built to be an accompaniment to the neighborhood’s gentrification, the appearance of the modern-day “Bowery Bums” is perhaps challenging the ability to complete the transition from “home of the downtrodden” to “hipster village.”
“No one wants to have lunch next to a foul-smelling bum, or a drunk or a junkie nodding out next to you. It’s not very appetizing. At the same time, Whole Foods displaced these people. These were the original Bowery denizens,” said Sean Sweeney, head of the Soho Alliance. “Gentrification took place and displaced them. Where are they supposed to go? The de Blasio administration has not done enough to find shelter for these unfortunate people.”
The number of homeless seeking space in the city’s shelters hit an all-time high last year. Those that don’t bother with shelters find warmth in places like Penn Station, other transit hubs, and accommodating locations like Whole Foods.
One employee working upstairs at the barbecue stand said, “The homeless problem gets worse in the winter, but nothing can be done about it.”