Fabiano Daoud, who owns Dar 525, a Mediterranean eatery on Grand Street, hosted the group last Wednesday night. They munched on pizza, falafel, salad and vegetables inside the dimly lit restaurant.
Daoud is no stranger to the plight of homelessness. In 1999, when he first arrived in the country from his native Syria at age 16, he struggled to find a home for two weeks. During the day, Daoud said he would look for work.
“At night, we met another Tunisian guy who was an attendant for a parking garage,” he said. “He would let us sleep in one of the cars before his boss came at six in the morning. By 6 a.m., he would wake us up, and we would leave.
“When you move here, you have no family, no help, it’s extremely tough,” he added. “I did not speak the language properly. I had to learn everything.”
An aspiring doctor, Daoud eventually went to medical school while also working in restaurants. But he had a lot of family in Syria he needed to help out, so he decided to go into the restaurant business full time.
“At the end of the day, I knew I was going to make it, it was just a matter of when,” he said. “When you put in hard work, it’s going to pay off no matter what.”
After opening Dar 525 six years ago, Daoud opened another location in Greenpoint in 2015. Both restaurants regularly give back to the community, including monthly donations to another shelter at the Southside Community Mission.
When Councilman Antonio Reynoso reached out to Daoud about possibly hosting an event for residents of a nearby homeless shelter, the restaurant owner said it was a “no-brainer.”
“I said to myself, ‘when I make it, I’m going to pay it forward,’” he said. “That’s what I do now. Everything I do, I think of my beginnings.”
The Williamsburg councilman had high praise for his friend Daoud, whom he said never hesitates when it comes to giving back.
“This is a Wednesday night, he shut this place down to support this event,” Reynoso said. “I’m so proud of what he does and who he is. Dar 525 is a special place in this neighborhood, and he’s showing why.”
Roughly 60 people, including many young children, attended the dinner. They all moved into the Metropolitan Hotel, located at Union and Metropolitan avenues, this past summer after the Department of Homeless Services (DHS) rented 54 rooms to provide shelter for the families.
Reynoso said he thought of the idea for the dinner after a few constituents expressed concerns about not just the lack of communication about the shelter, but also “the type of people who were in the hotel.”
“I really felt uncomfortable because I know that people in shelters are just like you and me, people who are just one paycheck away from not being able to make it,” Reynoso said. “I wanted to break down those perceptions and those barriers, and make sure that people understood that they’re just normal people like everyone else.”
Angela Calcano, a Ridgewood native who has lived in The Metropolitan for more than three months, said she ended up at the shelter after her mother passed away.
“I used my savings to bury her,” she said. “After that, my landlord raised my rent.”
After a protracted legal battle, Calcano was told to pack her bags and leave. In August, she received a text from her landlord informing her that her belongings were moved to Long Island.
For nearly a year, Calcano said she avoided shelters because her son has chronic allergies and she was afraid shelters wouldn’t be clean.
“It was scary,” she said. “I had to stay in places to take care of my son, make sure he was good. His safety is first.”
But as her four-year-old son approached the start of school, she realized they needed more stability. Calcano then went to PATH in the Bronx, and was later relocated to The Metropolitan.
She said she has no complaints living in the shelter, though the transition was a bit tough on her son. Like most kids, she said, he just wants more space to play.
At the dinner, Calcano said she was thankful for the meal, and felt blessed just to have a roof over her head.
“I’m not saying I’ll have a Thanksgiving dinner, but I have a roof over me,” she said. “I have a place to stay with my son, so that’s fine.”
“But the holidays are hard,” Calcano added, overcome with emotion. “Because it’s just me and him, but we’re okay. I stay strong for him.”
Reynoso said part of his motivation for organizing the event was seeing what unfolded in Maspeth just a year ago. After DHS tried to convert a hotel into a homeless shelter, hundreds of protesters rallied every night against the plan. They even protested in front of the Brooklyn home of DHS Commissioner Steven Banks several times.
“What happened in Maspeth is not a reflection of how the city of New York treats the most vulnerable and the neediest,” Reynoso said. “That’s not the M.O. we will be pushing while I’m council member. I won’t accept anything less than complete hospitality from my community.”
He said the city has a legal obligation to provide shelter for everyone who needs it, even if that means temporarily housing them in a hotel.
While elected officials in City Hall attempt to address the homeless crisis, the affordability crisis and other housing needs, people who are down on their luck should feel welcome, Reynoso said.
“I’m separating the politics from the humanity of what we see here,” he said. “What we see here are people in need. I’m going to take care of them first and deal with the politics later.”