Rev. Debbe Santiago
By Edmund DeMarche
The Salt and Sea Mission in Coney Island is in a ubiquitous red brick building in the shadow of the Coney Island parachute jump. There are two markings of gold graffiti on the wall with one word not suitable for a family paper.
There is a stairwell with the 10 Commandments and other drawings on the walls that lead to a run-down space filled with metal folding chairs, file cabinets and boxes.
Times are hard at the Salt and Sea Mission, a food pantry. In the past year, food prices have increased so dramatically, the supply is running out. In 19 years, the 10 volunteers, a majority of whom were once homeless, have begun to turn clients away. Or resort to giving families of four a couple of cans of soup.
“We don’t have the food,” said Rev. Debbe Santiago, the pantry’s organizer. “It’s hard to tell a family to keep praying when they’re hungry and don’t know the next time they’ll eat.”
The normal food basket’s price increased 33 percent in the last year. In these hard financial times, the pantry has never seen so many new visitors. An article appeared in a newspaper about the pantry last week that inspired three people to wish them well, but nobody donated money.
Rev. Santiago, a slight woman with tranquil blue eyes, has a bond with the 150 or so people who visit the pantry from across the city. She was once homeless.
For three years, Rev. Santiago roamed the streets in Coney Island. At night, she slept underneath the boardwalk. She remembers blaming God for her situation and still feels the harsh pangs of hunger. Twenty-two years later, she’s still cold from being on the streets.
“I wear a coat in the summer,” said Rev. Santiago. “I don’t think I’ll ever be warm again.”
While homeless, she promised herself that if she ever got off the streets, she would do all she could to make sure hungry and homeless people would have a place to get warm and receive some food.
“I remember feeling like a social outcast and that nobody loved me,” she said, while standing over her laptop in her green and purple-colored office, about to conduct a bible study program.
She was walking on, fittingly, Hart Place in Coney Island when she says she heard God say, “I love you.”
At that moment, she says, she decided to turn her life around. There was a local philanthropist who would offer her an extra room in his house in Luna Park, who she would often refuse. But she decided to take him up on it.
By this time she weighed 80 pounds with her liver jutting out of her stomach because of her excessive drinking. But she rebounded and made her first meal for the homeless three days after moving in.
“It was odd,” she recalls. “Because I was feeding people (homeless) who once abused me.”
The Salt and Sea Mission has been a strong presence in the community for 19 years. It is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from noon to 2 p.m. For the first time, the pantry was forced to close for three weeks in August. It ran out of food.
The pantry receives food from the city, City Harvest and private donors. With the increase in clients, the pantry finds itself struggling to meet the demands.
“I was at a community board meeting last Thursday,” said Rev. Santiago, a 19-year member of Community Board 13 in Coney Island. “And a woman came up to me and gave me a $5 bill, and said that was all she could do. That was so special.”
Rev. Santiago considers herself an interdenominational pastor. On Wednesday last week she held a bible study for women. Her heart is in Coney Island but she says she can’t afford the rent and commutes from Staten Island five days a week.
“This is my life’s work,” she said. “And it’s never been more challenging.”
Any donations should be sent to Salt and Sea Mission in Coney Island at 1530 Mermaid Avenue, 11224, Brooklyn, NY.