Staten Island Sandy Volunteers Concerned About City Scrutiny

In the aftermath of Sandy, volunteers set up local donation centers where residents could pick up hot meals, dry clothes and cleaning supplies. In some cases, these centers have been run by churches and other formal organizations. But others have been led by volunteers and now there is a growing concern among these smaller-scale operations about increased scrutiny from the city.

Aiman Youssef's home at 481 Midland Avenue in Staten Island flooded so badly during the storm that he had to swim to safety.  The following Saturday, his nephew's fiance called him and asked what she could bring him. 

"I said maybe couple pants, socks, that's it. That's what I need," explained Youssef.  Later that day, he said she showed up with a truck full of supplies and planned to set up a table to give away anything he didn't need.  They spent the rest of the day and the following clearing off their half-table of supplies. But this "half-table" operation was about to change.

"All of a sudden I see cars coming," said Youssef.  People would ask, "‘Are you the recovery center?’ I start looking at the table and I said, 'No I’m a half-table man over here.' Now half-table is the whole block."

In the days after the storm, sites like this popped up in hard hit neighborhoods across the city. Occupy Sandy, an outgrowth of the Occupy movement, was one of the most nimble groups of organizers getting people and resources to where they were needed most.

Youssef, 42, said he's not affiliated with any group although Occupy Sandy volunteers are among those who work at his site. He said it's mostly residents who arrived outside his home helping the site grow from half a table to 13 full tables of food, clothes and cleaning supplies stretching down the sidewalk to the corner. That also meant part of the site is on public property, opening the door to more scrutiny from the city.

Hannah Scott, 31, started volunteering two days after the storm.  The London-native lives in Harlem, but she estimates she's coordinating nine different groups on Staten Island. Last week, NYPD officers told the volunteers at Midland Avenue to move the set-up three feet to clear the sidewalk and the street. Scott said the city's sanitation department is also watching.

"We have to keep the sidewalks clear. We have to keep it looking clean so it doesn't look like a shanty-town apparently," Scott said.

Across the street, an NYPD van is parked with officers watching the site. Volunteers from the Occupy Sandy are particularly concerned that the city is going to shut down this and other grassroots efforts.

If that did happen, Dawn Beacham, who lives around the corner from the site, says she doesn't know what she would do.

"That would be terrible," Beacham sighed. "I just went to the store and it takes hours."

She and her husband lost two trucks in the storm. They had to be rescued by boat from their home. She said bus and train service around Staten Island can take a long time and even car service is unreliable. So this Midland Avenue center has been her go-to spot, on this day, for something as simple as lunch.

"I got the sausage, like in noodles and stuff, and they gave me bread and cornbread and brownies and water," said Beacham. "So it’s really a godsend all of these people. They bring us hope. And if I keep talking I’ll cry."

A spokesman for the mayor's office said the city is not planning to shut this or other sites down.

The city's Department of Health does go out to most sites once a week for monitoring and consulting, according to a department spokeswoman.  The DOH has not reported major issues, but inspectors do occasionally observe food that's being improperly held or stored and its inspectors ask that it be corrected.

The inspections are conducted by the DOH's mobile food vending inspectors.  The DOH uses information gathered by the Office of Emergency Management.