TRIBECA — Dust is flying and hammers are pounding at the New York City Rescue Mission in TriBeCa, where workers are expanding the oldest homeless shelter in the city.
The $9 million project, which just started construction this month, will add three stories to the Christian mission's longtime building at 90 Lafayette St., which offers hot meals and both temporary and long-term sleeping quarters.
The expansion will double the building's size to 25,000 square feet and increase the number of beds from 100 to about 240, retiring executive director James VarnHagen said. The mission will also have space to house women overnight for the first time.
"When we see so many people in need, we've got to do everything we possibly can to help," VarnHagen said, as he gave a tour of the construction recently. "We've always had more people come here than we had beds."
Demand for the homeless shelter's services spiked about 30 percent between 2009 and 2010 as the recession hit, and the mission's leaders said it has yet to come down.
"The [homeless] haven't experienced any kind of reprieve from the economic downturn," VarnHagen said.
The departing director, 76, who has led the NYC Rescue Mission for the past 22 years, began working on the expansion more than a decade ago, but it took years to secure the necessary funding and approvals. All the money for the construction is now in place, and the mission is now raising another $2 million for increased operational costs once the larger building opens in about 18 months.
VarnHagen had long been thinking about retirement, and on June 1, the same day the construction finally started, he turned the reins of the organization over to a new executive director, Craig Mayes, who will see the expansion through to completion.
Mayes, 56, a Detroit native with a doctorate in psychology, has known VarnHagen for more than 30 years through Bible studies and other Christian missions. After volunteering at the NYC Rescue Mission for the past four years, Mayes said he felt called to take on a larger role.
"There is a great need here," Mayes said. "The way you change the world is you change it one life at a time. Every man or woman who walks through this door represents one life."
The NYC Rescue Mission was founded in 1872 by Jerry and Maria McAuley and has always been headquartered in lower Manhattan. McAuley was an alcoholic and criminal who found God while serving time in Sing Sing prison and vowed to help other members of the so-called "unworthy poor."
McAuley’s motto was, "We want to clean ’em up on the outside while God cleans ’em up on the inside."
While the shelter is steeped in Christian ethics, no one has to listen to a sermon in order to get a free meal. Those who stay overnight attend an evening chapel service, and the men who enroll in a long-term residential program receive Christian counseling.
Some may question the need for a homeless shelter in modern-day TriBeCa, one of the richest parts of the city, but Mayes said that wealth is also what draws the homeless to spend time in the neighborhood, soliciting handouts.
The mission is also located near New York City Family Court and other court buildings, which draw a diverse mix of city residents, some of whom stop by the mission for a free hot meal after appearing in court, Mayes said.
"They're everywhere in the city," Mayes said of the homeless.
"Neighborhoods have theaters and grocery stores — they should also have something meeting the needs of the marginalized."