By Michael Morton
The store, opened last year, represents the only such service in a shelter nationwide and is housed in the former basement hotel bar at the Salvation Army's Carlton House at 138-10 135th Ave. Serving 335 families, the shelter opened in 2002 and is the largest in the country. The store, however, did not accept food stamps until recently, making it difficult for residents to get groceries. So Schumer stepped in.”Here at Carlton House, we see that people who come to this place at no fault of their own are given a beautiful place and the counseling and support they need,” Schumer said, singling out the facility's work with battered women for praise during a visit to the shelter Monday. “It's 335 families that are given a new chance Ñ that's what America is all about.”The idea for the convenience store, called Carlton Express, was thought up by Alfred Peck, director of homeless services for Salvation Army's Greater New York Division, after a kitchenette was installed at each of Carlton House's rooms. The nearest market to the shelter was more than a mile away, requiring a costly taxi ride or a difficult bus trip for the families, many of whom have small children.Peck thought the store would be more convenient, but because the service was unprecedented in a shelter, the U.S. Department of Agriculture did not allow the residents to use their food stamps there. The department said the shelter store was not accessible to the general public and thus did not qualify for the program. Schumer became involved after being contacted by Whitsons, the private food management firm from Long Island that operates the store.”Typically in government you have bureaucrats and there are problems,” Schumer acknowledged. But when he spoke with the department, it changed its tune, allowing the store, once struggling for business, to stay open and serve the residents.”The residents really couldn't use their primary currency in the store,” said Robert Whitcomb, chief executive officer of Whitsons.Marvin Burgos, a former resident who got a full-time job with the store's contractor and now lives in Manhattan, said the only restaurants nearby served fast food and that walking more than a mile to the market was a pain and not safe at night.”It was very difficult to get groceries,” said the 20-year-old father of three.The 600-square-foot Carlton Express sells canned goods, frozen dinners and drinks but soon should be offering meat and produce, the store's manager said. It could not be determined if other non-profits would open such markets in their shelters, but Salvation Army representatives said their facility in Briarwood could get one next.Said Major George Polarek, secretary for social services in the city: “This opens up the possibility to do that.”Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.