Brett Goldberg is voluntarily homeless. From week to week, he crashes on one friend’s couch or another. Then, during the day, he heads to the Occupy Sandy headquarters at the Ascension Parish Hall on 122 Java Street, and helps coordinate the movement’s relief effort in the Rockaways. That’s no easy task: there’s demolitions, muck-outs, mold remediation, and the tremendous effort needed to make sure the team’s energy isn’t misdirected towards unnecessary donations or already served blocks in a devastated neighborhood.
The Ascension Parish Hall – which is run by Reverend John Merz of the Church of the Ascension at 127 Kent Street – is the new central hub of Occupy Sandy, where the movement’s coordinators gather to make sure their relief efforts are in lockstep. All things considered, the place is fairly quiet: on a Tuesday afternoon, there are fewer than a dozen people gravitating around a few long tables, busily typing away on laptops.
The Parish Hall’s involvement is a new development in Occupy Sandy. Shortly after the Superstorm rocked New York, the movement’s volunteers made their base of operations St. Jacoby’s Church in Sunset Park, then onward to St. Luke & St. Matthew’s Church in Clinton Hill. When a fire made St. Luke’s & St. Matthew’s uninhabitable, Reverend Merz opened his doors, and brought the team into the space the first week of January.
Having North Brooklyn as a home for the movement is bringing new people into the fold. Suzanne Biggan has been informally volunteering since before the storm even touched ground. As soon as she heard of Sandy’s approach, she took in a friend at her house, and began cooking meals for people in flood zones. She’d post her meals on Twitter, then other volunteers would come by, pick up the food, and bring them to disaster areas. Before long, Sandy volunteers were sleeping at her place and Biggan was cooking for three days straight in order to fill a U-Haul with baked ziti that she delivered – with blankets – to her hometown of Union Beach on the New Jersey shore.
Biggan wasn’t a stalwart member of Occupy Wall Street during its nascence; while others slept in Zuccoti Park, she worked a job, slept at home, and empathized mostly from the sidelines. But with the storm, she now often spends more time volunteering than she does on Square Foot Farms, her business and hypothetical future source of income.
“I’m cooking four to five days a week, and this was the fourth month in a row that I paid rent with a credit card,” she said with a shrug.
“With Occupy Sandy, people are seeing that we [the Occupy Movement] are meeting communities where they’re at,” said Goldberg. “During Occupy Wall Street we talked about it. Now they see us embody it.”
According to Goldberg, the group’s efficiency stands in sharp contrast with governmental organizations like FEMA and the Red Cross, who were slower to respond to the crisis than the Occupy movement. He believes they were held up by a bottleneck of red tape created by a resistance to national help coming from Mayor Bloomberg’s office.
“We’re seeing how the sausage is made,” said Goldberg, adding that “at Occupy Sandy we don’t have to fill out any paperwork in order to give a bottle of water to someone in need.”
A FEMA spokesperson flatly denied the allegation that the Mayor’s office was slow to respond to the disaster, and said the level of cooperation and coordination between the mayor, Governor Cuomo, and FEMA was commendable.
Kristian Nanmack, another Occupy Sandy volunteer, struck a more conciliatory tone. FEMA officials visited the Greenpoint headquarters Tuesday afternoon, and Nanmack said they were there to help coordinate the city’s many different volunteer groups.
“They’re just making sure we’re all on the same page,” Nanmack said. “Most of the other volunteer groups are churches. And each church tends to have certain niches of recovery they’re really good at. So, for example, the Mormons and the Mennonites tend to be really good with carpentry. And the Lutherans and the Methodists excel at case management.
“Everyone’s just trying to figure out what to do with us… we’re the new kids on the block.”
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