Carmen Quiñones Leads Volunteer Brigade Helping Douglass Houses Seniors

Carmen Quiñones with boxes of meals for seniors.

By Michael McDowell

The coronavirus pandemic has generated a level of demand that has overwhelmed America’s food banks. Bare-shelved groceries lack food to donate; restaurants, hotels, and other hospitality businesses, once major contributors, have shuttered; and food bank volunteers, many of whom are retirees, are in short supply.

In New York City, food pantries were in crisis a month ago. By the end of March, one-third of them had closed. And although the City has directed $25 million in emergency funding to food pantries across the five boroughs, they can’t reach everyone. That’s where Carmen Quiñones comes in.

As coronavirus began to appear in New York City, Quiñones, who is president of the tenant association at Douglass Houses, a large New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) complex on the Upper West Side, understood that seniors were particularly vulnerable, and particularly susceptible to food insecurity.

“It began with me needing food for my people,” Quiñones told the Rag, as volunteers organized boxes full of meals outside of Douglass, on 101st Street and Columbus Avenue. “What we’re doing is specifically for seniors. Right now I do Thursdays and Saturdays,” she specified.

To make it happen, Quiñones called James Gonzalez, a co-owner of La Fonda Boricua on East 106th Street and 3rd Avenue.

“I’m an East Harlem Girl, and La Fonda was everybody’s place to go eat, so it was just like going right back home,” she said.

La Fonda is participating in nonprofit World Central Kitchen’s nationwide effort to repurpose restaurant kitchens to provide meals to healthcare workers and the hungry during the pandemic.

La Fonda had food. But large boxes full of food present a logistical conundrum.

“I couldn’t keep going to get the food. I was spending my own money on cabs, and I needed help,” Quiñones said.

Richard Habersham happened to call. Fellow community organizers, the two had met about a year ago.

“I talked to Carmen, and I said, what’s the need? And she told me that she really needed just to be able to get these meals from one place to another. So, we rented a U-Haul,” Habersham said.

“Richard, out of his own pocket, every Thursday and Saturday, he gets a U-Haul, fills it up, and brings it over here and unpacks it,” Quiñones nodded.

Douglass isn’t the only stop on his route.

Habersham, who is running for Congress against Representative Adriano Espaillat in the 13th congressional district, rents a U-Haul three days each week—Monday, Thursday, and Saturday—and moves boxes full of meals from La Fonda to Douglass, as well as the Riverside Park Community, Fulton Houses in Chelsea, and more. He plans to start making deliveries to Polo Grounds, in Harlem, this week.

“Initially this was just, we’ll get a meal here, a meal there,” Habersham said. “We were swatting flies. But the goal is to get people meals every day, and also to keep them safe.”

Sabrina Swanson and shopping cart full of meals.

Once the boxes arrive, volunteers like Michael Walker and Tanya Sabio open them up, and sort the meals. Some meals are available for pick-up at 830 Columbus Avenue.

“The people that walk by, the elderly, we hand it out. The rest we take to the buildings, we knock on the doors, and the elderly people, we give it to them,” Walker explained.

The meals are loaded into shopping carts and granny carts. Volunteers wheel them to individual buildings, and knock on doors on each floor. Most of the buildings at Douglass are 20 stories, and there are 18 buildings in Douglass proper.

“A lady at 860 Columbus, a nice, short old lady who lives on the 16th floor, she can’t get out,” Walker said. “When I give her the food, she asks, are you coming back again? And I say, every chance I get.”

Sabrina Swanson, who was sorting meals nearby, also makes deliveries.

“It made me cry on the first day,” Swanson said. “I love my seniors. Growing up we respected the elders, and now we’re taking care of them, because they took care of us when we were little.”

It’s volunteers like Walker and Swanson, both of whom live in Douglass, that make it all possible.

“The only way we could do this right is if people volunteered from their own buildings. In order for it to work, it had to be somebody that lives in the building, who seniors know and who they trust,” Quiñones emphasized.

There are 18 buildings in Douglass, and Quiñones is also delivering meals to the Douglass Rehabs, an adjacent complex. That means, in total, she’s distributing approximately 800 meals per day on Thursdays and Saturdays, to 20 buildings.

And that’s not all.

“Sometimes I don’t know what I’m getting myself into,” Quiñones laughed. “I get a lot of meals for Douglass, so as long as my people are taken care of, whatever’s left, we send it out.”

Quiñones has been coordinating with other NYCHA tenant association presidents, and has facilitated the delivery of meals to more than a dozen NYCHA developments across the city—as far away as Castle Hill in the Bronx.

“We’re feeding Harlem. On Thursdays, we do the Lower East Side,” she said. “Nobody should go hungry. If they need a meal, they should call me at (347) 499-0025.”

“People are welcome to walk by,” Swanson added, who was now readying a shopping cart to make deliveries. “We could always use more food. Some young mothers have said they can’t find formula, and I’ve been trying to reach out for that.”

The volunteers at Douglass [instead of “cheese!” we say “social distancing!”].

Ruthy Mackins set out with a full cart, and the boisterous energy in the room offered a momentary reprieve from the gravity of the situation.

“We’ve had some deaths. They’re not saying how many. But we’ve had a few.” Quiñones said. “Let me tell you, this disease is definitely in Douglass.”

“Last Thursday, one of my volunteers was doing her building, giving meals out. She’d gone from the 20th floor to the 5th floor, and when she got to the 5th floor, they were taking a body out. She freaked out, she came over here hollering and crying. And I told her that she didn’t have to do it again, so we’re looking for somebody else to do that building,” she said.

A woman with short silver hair walked shyly toward Quiñones, who, noticing her, switched to Spanish.

“Cómo está mi hija? Quiere comer?”

“Si,” she responded.

Quiñones returned with a box.

UPDATE: Yesterday, in a press conference that ran over two hours, Mayor Bill de Blasio pledged that “no New Yorker will go hungry.” Furthermore, the City “is going to do a special effort around NYCHA buildings and senior buildings in particular [are] the focus…we’re going to provide meals directly. We’ll have enough meals for a whole building of seniors, and we’ll get them right to them.” The Mayor did not specify how this will be accomplished. Those who wish to sign up for meals may do so here. Additional resources are here.

“If you are having difficulty accessing the GetFoodNYC program or received an unsatisfactory delivery, please let us know at info@manhattanbp.nyc.gov with ‘Senior NYCHA food’ in the subject line,” wrote Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, in her daily coronavirus update yesterday. Sign up for Brewer’s daily coronavirus update here.

ADDITIONAL UPDATE: Reached by phone, Quiñones was ecstatic to learn that Rag readers were interested in supporting the work of the volunteers at Douglass. Donations of food or non-perishables may be dropped off or sent to:

Carmen Quiñones
Tenant Association Room
830 Columbus Avenue
New York, NY
10025

Quiñones asks those interested in supporting the effort contact her by phone or email, (347) 499-0025 or
rosaquinones1938@gmail.com. Readers may also support the work of World Central Kitchen, which is providing many of the meals Quiñones and her volunteers are delivering.

NEWS | 8 comments | permalink
    1. Caroline says:

      Looking for the helpers? These are the helpers right here! Thank you for what you’re doing!

    2. lcnyc says:

      WSR: is there a link where people can donate money towards this effort?

    3. HN says:

      How can people donate financially to this effort?

    4. Sarah says:

      Beautiful mutual aid in the community!

    5. Hopeful says:

      God bless her and the volunteers. How can we contribute to help our neighbors?

    6. UWS neighbor says:

      I’d like to donate to their efforts!

    7. UWSHOlly says:

      the restaurant is getting funds through World Central Kitchen (https://wck.org/)
      do they need money for the Uhaul? Baby formula? Can we order baby formula on line and have it shipped somewhere?
      Can someone from the Westside Rag contact her? she gives her number but I think WSR should explain the situation and post an update.

    8. Madelyn says:

      Ms. Quinones has not given all residents food or masks, sanitizer to most residents. She only gives them to a selected few in order for her to run for office. Those should be given out to the Children’s Aid Society to be given out to residents and not to TA PRESIDENT’s. And Give them to Goddard Riverside. The Residents of Douglass Houses Residents and TA President should be investigated now.