Mission workers: Hurricane Sandy is forcing us to close

Mission workers: Hurricane Sandy is forcing us to close
Photo by Stefano Giovannini

A homeless shelter that cared for scores of displaced super storm victims is about to shut its doors — and it has Hurricane Sandy to thank, volunteers say.

The Salt and Sea Mission — a font of food and comfort to the homeless, battered women, and at-risk children for 26 years — is poised to lose the spot it’s held at the corner of Mermaid Avenue and W. 16th Street for more than a decade because its landlord, the nearby Gargiulo’s Restaurant, need to use the space for its storm recovery efforts.

“I don’t want to do it, I try to do the best I can for the community,” said Nino Russo, who is the process of rebuilding the historic Italian eatery that the super storm ruined. “But I just lost my entire business and I need the space.”

Salt and Sea founder Pastor Debbe Santiago says she isn’t angry at Russo, but claims that the mission will be devastated without a location. With no address, Santiago will be unable to get government contracts to fill her food pantry or offer space for the needy, she claims.

“It’s crushing my heart,” said Santiago, a recovering drug addict who was homeless before turning her life around and opening her mission. She’s currently a Community Board 13 member. “I need to be where I’ve always helped people, where people have always known I was there to help them.”

Santiago said she’s been unable to find another location to stock food and run outreach programs and fears that Salt and Sea’s disappearance could have terrible repercussions in the neighborhood.

“I have hungry kids I take care of here. And if I can’t feed them, they’re going to go to the Pathmark and steal food. And they’re going to excuse it, because they’re going to say, ‘Hey, I’m hungry,’” Santiago warned. “And that makes it an easy target for drug dealers to say, ‘Come work for me.’”

Yet the Salt and Sea Mission was approaching closure long before Hurricane Sandy hit, civic leaders say. Santiago has made repeated pleas for more donations over the last year and Russo says he and his brothers granted the mission many extensions when it couldn’t come up with the rent.