Volume 75, Number 21 | October 12 - 18, 2005

Villager photo by Bob Kreizel

Pastor Diane Dunne of Hope for the Future Ministries, right, Almada Sookoo, left, and two of Almada Sookoo’s four foster children in front of hostile sidewalk graffiti.

Graffiti is latest fray in E. 9th St. food fight

By Vanessa Romo

Three lanky boys crouched on the sidewalk near the corner of Ninth St. and Avenue C on a recent Saturday afternoon, trying to make out the freshly written graffiti on the ground. “Leave This Block,” “Give No Money,” “Whore of Babylon,” they read, stumbling over the last and unfamiliar word.

“This is so nasty,” said Almada Sookoo, the boys’ foster mother, who quickly shooed them away from the neatly printed pastel-colored messages. “Only a nasty person would want to put this garbage here. It is very hurting to let someone down to this lowest degree, where all the kids can read it, ” she said, her voice quavering with emotion.

Sookoo, 68, is one of about 200 East Village residents and homeless people who show up along this stretch of Ninth St. Saturday and Wednesday afternoons to collect free hot meals and pantry bags from Hope for the Future Ministries.

The appearance of graffiti is the latest source of conflict between a group of residents on the block who oppose Hope for the Future Ministries’ presence on the street and Pastor Diane Dunne, a thin woman with dark hair and a thick New York City accent, who founded the organization 19 years ago. The two groups have been engaged in a battle over the sidewalk space for more than a decade with both sides accusing the other of intimidation and harassment. Since 1993, when Dunne first moved to the sidewalk in front of La Plaza Cultural Community Garden from her previous spot on Avenue C, she has faced resistance from residents, she said. In addition to the offensive graffiti, people in line have been pelted with eggs and insults by someone in an apartment across the street.

In the early 1990s the New 600 BC East Ninth St. Block and Neighborhood Association waged a campaign to remove Dunne’s group from the block. Although the block association was unsuccessful, tensions continued to escalate with the two groups lobbing accusations at one another. In March 2004 residents opposed to the soup kitchen and the weekly sermons Dunne delivers on the sidewalk on Wednesday afternoons, organized informally. They wrote letters to Councilmember Margarita Lopez and Detective Jamie Hernandez of the Ninth Precinct, which patrols the area, complaining of verbal and physical abuse and harassment.

“It’s the burden of the poor to be unwanted,” said Dunne. “Everyone says, ‘Oh yeah, I want to help the poor,’ but nobody wants them. Nobody wants to look at them. They don’t want them on their block.”

But residents behind the fight to eject Dunne and her following said it is not the soup kitchen they object to but Dunne’s methods. “We’re not against feeding the poor, we’re just tired of the problems they cause in our neighborhood,” said a resident who asked not to be identified. “Dunne is a very aggressive and confrontational person.”

They accuse her of creating a contentious and unpleasant environment. Nearby residents whose windows face the food line object to the content of Dunne’s sermons, which they describe as “full of hellfire and brimstone.” They complain of being forced to listen to anti-gay and anti-Muslim speeches, threats of eternal damnation and accusations of being sinners in league with the Devil. They also accuse Dunne of exploiting the people she serves by requiring them to attend her sermon before distributing food — a common practice among religion-based nonprofit organizations that provide services for the poor. Pedestrians are intimidated into walking on the opposite side of the street during sermons or they are forced to do so because there is not enough room to get by, the opponents say. Reports of fights breaking out between people standing in the food line have brought the police to the block on several occasions, according to neighbors.

Other problems are logistical. Vans delivering food take up most of the available parking on the narrow and residential street. Trash, which residents admit is usually neatly placed along the curb, attracts rats to the area and subsequently to the garden.

Still, many people on the block appreciate Dunne’s work. Nector Diaz, 41, who has lived on the block for 12 years and visits the food line whenever he is “down on his luck,” said, “Dunne is like an angel around here. She’s doing a lot of good for the area, for low-income people. She serves everybody and doesn’t turn anyone away. Even when it’s 10 degrees below zero, she’s always out.”

The outdoor soup kitchen is just one of the services provided by Hope for the Future Ministries, which operates a second soup kitchen out of a 4,800-square-foot warehouse in Farmingdale, Long Island. Anyone in need who lives in the neighborhood can qualify for the groceries. However, seniors, whose food items are slightly more expensive due to their dietary needs, are required to provide a letter from Social Security stating their income. Dunne also hands out clothing and blankets during the winter and hosts a Christmas dinner and gift exchange at Hope House, a six-bedroom house in Seldon, Long Island, that the church purchased in 1999.

Dunne estimates she distributes about 500,000 hot meals and pantry bags each year. The majority of the money for these services is donated, she said. Her operational budget is more than $200,000 a year. She said that last month she spent $1,500 on gas transporting food and volunteers each between Farmingdale and the East Village.

A woman in her early 70s, dressed in a candy-striped sweater, turquoise sweat pants and Fila slippers pushed her cart toward the end of the distribution line on a recent Saturday afternoon. Her small blue cart, wrapped in gray duct tape, was nearly full, loaded with two individually wrapped ham-and-cheese sandwiches, two nectarines, four unripe bananas, three large zucchinis, an 8-ounce block of white cheddar cheese, a 6-ounce tub of butter, a loaf of wheat bread, a bag of English muffins, a half-dozen eggs, one package of bacon, a 16-ounce box of orange juice, two small cups of strawberry yogurt, two cups of chocolate pudding and a bag of uncooked lentils. About $60 worth of groceries.

She waved Dunne over to her and pointed at the graffiti. “It’s a shame to the community,” she said, wondering who would do such a thing. But several participants in the feeding program and neighbors, including Sookoo and Diaz, blame Don Yorty, president of the block association, who lives in a five-story building across the street from the food line. Their suspicion, they say, is based on the fact that several years ago he was seen at his window throwing eggs and yelling obscenities at people standing in line. However, neither witnessed him writing on the sidewalk.

Yorty, 41, who brought several letters written by residents against Dunne to The Villager newsroom, denied being involved. “I didn’t do the graffiti,” he said. “I may have yelled out the window after Diane yelled at me first but I didn’t say anything obscene.” Responding to accusations of throwing eggs, he first said, “I don’t imagine I would have done that.” And later added, “I never would do something like that.”

“It doesn’t really matter who it was,” said Dunne, referring to the graffiti. “The point is, we’re out here preaching the word of God, feeding the poor, and they have to come here to this,” she said, as she grabbed onto Hope, a white dog with an American flag bandana around his neck who is the ministry’s mascot.

Ironically, Dunne and the residents who want her out of the neighborhood are after the same thing; they want a permanent facility for the soup kitchen and an enclosed space for her sermons. “I don’t think I can face another winter in the snow,” Dunne said. “It’s a lot of hard work. No one really wants to be out there. They don’t want to shovel snow and then sit in it and be cold,” said Dunne. She recently toured a 2,000-square-foot facility a few blocks from the spot outside La Plaza Cultural that was being rented for $8,000 a month. “We just can’t afford anything that expensive,” she said.

Dunne’s favorite success stories are ones in which she helped someone get off the street and into their own home. “It’s such a blessing when I can build someone’s self-esteem and lift them up like that,” she said. “And here I am trying to find a permanent place for my ministry.”

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