By DAVID GONZALEZ
Men lined up outside St. Joseph House on the Lower East Side on a recent morning, some with their belongings stuffed in worn bags, all with their stomachs empty. Inside the dining hall, which is run by Catholic Worker, a hearty meal of stew and bread awaited. Most of the men were homeless, though not necessarily hopeless — this daily ritual gave sustenance and respite in a neighborhood that has steadily pushed them aside as tenements and poor people give way to luxury buildings.
Gerald Howard ushered a few men at a time inside. Once homeless himself, he has lived at St. Joseph House for several years, and helps the ministry in welcoming the needy.
“The hipsters, yuppies or whatever name you call them have been infiltrating this neighborhood,” he said. “They’re gentrifying the area, and I don’t think the homeless are part of their equation. I think, for them, out of sight is out of mind. You don’t see them. You don’t talk to them.”
The Bowery was once synonymous with being down and out, but, Mr. Howard said, services for homeless men have become harder to find there. He used to work at the Holy Name Center for Homeless Men, a stalwart presence on Bleecker Street since the 1940s, where each day about 100 men took morning showers, grabbed a meal and got their mail.
The Archdiocese of New York closed the center in 2011, citing “changing demographics” and low demand. It renovated the building and turned it into a Roman Catholic cultural center containing a 250-seat auditorium, a black box theater, rehearsal rooms and a small gallery. The building will also house eight campus ministry volunteers.
Named after Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, the center was envisioned as a vehicle for the church to evangelize through culture and art. This month, for instance, it will serve as one of the venues for the New York International Fringe Festival. In September, Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan will preside over its dedication and deliver an address about Archbishop Sheen, who gained fame as a television personality for his show “Life Is Worth Living.”
Fred Armour is puzzled by the cultural center. Having lived on the streets for five years, Mr. Armour used to rely on Holy Name for taking showers, which he could do early enough to have the rest of the day to look for work. A few other places in the area offer showers, but too late in the day. Instead, he washes himself under the sprinklers at a local park.
Not that long ago, Mr. Armour was struck by the sight of well-dressed people milling about outside the Sheen center.
“It looked like one of those events you’d see at any art center,” he said. “We already have a lot of culture around here. Why is the church joining in with what everybody else is doing around here? Joining the crowd.”
Although some of her friends questioned the church’s decision to build a cultural center, Heidi Hynes, a volunteer at St. Joseph House, saw an opportunity. She hoped the church might be persuaded to open the building early in the morning so that the homeless could at least shower there.
“That would be a powerful message to the people in that neighborhood and the visitors to the center about what is Catholic culture, and to know that serving the homeless is at the core of that,” Ms. Hynes said. “The Catholic Church is in a unique position to show people what it really means to love your neighbor.”
Encouraged by Pope Francis’s pronouncements about the obligation of the faithful to help the poor and marginalized, she wrote to Cardinal Dolan, the archbishop of New York, hoping that an accommodation could be reached. The cardinal replied in a letter that “the time has come to make a different use” of the building, but he vowed that the church would continue to provide services to the homeless in Lower Manhattan.
“I told Heidi if there is a need, we will look at it,” said Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, who runs Catholic Charities. “I do know we looked around when we were phasing out the center and thought the Bowery Residents’ Committee and the Rescue Mission provide a lot of services right around the corner.”
Undaunted, Ms. Hynes continues to press for a more favorable decision, gathering signatures on a petition and praying a novena to Dorothy Day, who helped found the Catholic Worker movement and spent years living and working with the poor on the Lower East Side. What is happening on the Bowery is not surprising, Ms. Hynes said, in a city where the well-off need not interact with the needy.
“People who are poor help people who are poor more than rich people do,” she said. “That’s because we live with each other and know each other. Other people think the poor are trying to scam them. That’s the saddest part of the hyper-segregation of this city, that people in need are deemed unworthy.”
A version of this article appears in print on August 4, 2014, on page A19 of the New York edition with the headline: On Bowery, Church’s New Focus Leaves a Void for the Needy.