[Hpn] The Neediest Cases: A Superwoman Finds She's Only Human

William C. Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Thu, 20 Jan 2005 09:38:14 -0500


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www.NYTimes.com/


 The Neediest Cases: A Superwoman Finds She's Only Human

 January 20, 2005
By JOHANNA JAINCHILL


 Alice Melendez sat on the couch in her sunny Bronx
apartment on a warm January morning and coughed. Surrounded
by moldy boxes, dusty furniture, and throw pillows bearing
the distinct mark of a rodent's nibble, Ms. Melendez, an
asthmatic, never goes far without the inhaler that lets her
breathe.

 Her sons, also asthmatic, try to avoid the living room.
Much of the furniture is broken, and some pieces have been
lost. Three of the four dining room chairs remain, and only
two still have their cushions, one of them torn.

 "That's O.K.," said Ms. Melendez, ever optimistic. "Because
we are three."

 Alice Melendez and her sons Casimar, 15, and Alex, 12,
moved into their apartment after two years of navigating
the New York City shelter system as a homeless family. She
said they did not see their belongings during that period,
after they were evicted from another Bronx apartment. Ms.
Melendez, 50, an energetic woman who contends with
depression when not working, said she never imagined she
would be homeless.

 "People have a perception of the homeless that you're
mentally incapacitated or a drug abuser," Ms. Melendez
said. "There are all kinds of people, a lot of working
people, a whole mix. But we all have something in common:
nowhere to live."

 Born poor in East Harlem, Ms. Melendez was determined to
improve her life. The first person in her family to go to
college, she rode a full scholarship to Alfred State
College in western New York. She studied nursing until her
mother, who had long had severe breathing problems, took a
turn for the worse. Ms. Melendez came home and took care of
her until she died, only 39 years old.

 Ms. Melendez completed her studies at Hostos Community
College and got her first job as a registered nurse at the
emergency room in Lincoln Medical and Mental Health Center
in the Bronx. She never looked back.

 "I love the E.R.; that's my real love," she said. "I was
like a superwoman, the strongest nurse there. I was so
proud of my strength."

 Ms. Melendez's children are following her into the medical
professions. Mario, 26, her oldest, graduated from medical
school last June and is a pediatrics intern in
Philadelphia. Her daughter, Marta, 24, is a health
assistant and wants to be a nurse. Still in high school,
Casimar plans to be a psychologist, while Alex, in sixth
grade, hopes to be an asthma doctor.

 But Ms. Melendez's feeling of invincibility betrayed her
one night when she picked up a heavy intravenous pole and
tore the rotator cuff in her right shoulder. A month later
she hurt her back in a car accident. After months of
physical therapy, she was able to work part time as a
school nurse, but she fell and tore the meniscus in her
right knee. With no income, Ms. Melendez had to apply for
public assistance.

"I always said to myself, 'I'm going to grow up and do
something and I'm never going to be on welfare,' " she
said.

 Ms. Melendez fell behind on her rent. On public assistance,
her rent was reduced. But when she started working part
time, it was raised again. She could not afford to pay $500
in rent and feed her two boys, she said. The family was
evicted, and though she fought the order, the Melendezes'
belongings were packed, and they were told to leave the
apartment immediately.

 Her relatives had no places for them to stay, so the family
turned to the city shelter system. They slept in a
different room every night for a week, until they were
placed in one tiny room with no closets on the Upper West
Side. Usually, this transitional arrangement can last a few
months. The Melendezes were there for a year and a half.

"It was kind of embarrassing," Casimar said. "In Catholic
schools the kids had money and houses, and I lost mine."
But his mother's optimism helped them through the tough
times, he said.

 Ms. Melendez said: "I would tell the kids, 'Home is where
we are.' Every place we were told to go, I'd say, 'We're
going home.' "

 They were moved to a bigger place for seven months, and in
November, Ms. Melendez had the money to get them into the
subsidized two-bedroom apartment they occupy now, in the
southeast Bronx.

 While they can afford the $132 rent, when their belongings
arrived from storage in December, the family's asthma
worsened. The Melendezes blamed mold and other allergens.
Alex is on the strongest asthma medicine there is, and
Casimar says he has been wheezing often. Ms. Melendez's
breathing has never been worse, she said, coughing through
an interview.

 But she and her family had an ally, through her injuries
and their other struggles. When she injured her shoulder,
Ms. Melendez went to Mercy Center, part of the federation
of agencies under the umbrella of Catholic Charities of the
Archdiocese of New York, one of the seven charities
supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund. The
agency provides job training, parenthood classes and other
community services. Ms. Melendez took some classes and
volunteered to teach others.

 Catholic Charities tapped the Neediest Cases Fund for
$1,195 to provide two ionic air purifiers and a vacuum,
which arrived this month. Ms. Melendez hopes the machines
will clean the air of mold and dust and enable her to
unpack the dozens of boxes of the family's belongings.

"I'm not coughing as much," she said after a week with the
purifiers. "And the boys are feeling much better. And Alex
loves the vacuum; he says he's going to vacuum every day
after school. I'm very happy about that."

 http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/20/nyregion/20neediest.html?ex=1107224220&ei=1&en=56027256149fbeb8 

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