After Losing Everything in a Fire, Home Health Aide Feels Lost in the System

December 16, 2019

Working families are too often one paycheck away from disaster.

Fire_fa.jpg“Reach out, before a shelter is your only option!” is the advice New York City has promoted to residents in crisis for the past five years. But what do you do when your home disappears overnight?

That is the question Tracey Ann Patterson, a home health aide (HHA) at New York City’s Partners In Care agency, has been asking herself since last January when she and her three children found themselves with nowhere to go after their house burned down. They escaped with their lives and little else. The landlord had no insurance to help with replacements.

With no winter clothes in the middle of January, Patterson and her three children were placed in a shelter in Brownsville, Brooklyn and were still there at press time. For 10 months, everywhere Patterson has turned to access public assistance for herself and her family, she has hit a brick wall.

Because they lost their home in a fire, Patterson and her children are not technically considered homeless. This means they must live in a modified NYC Housing Preservation and Development shelter because they were ‘displaced’. With fewer of these shelters throughout the city, the family is further from their home community of Jamaica, Queens. Life is more complicated and stressful. For example, Patterson’s 17-year-old son, who has autism, must now catch a 6:15 a.m. bus to get to his school in Queens.

“The only reason I didn’t end up in the Bronx is because of his school,” explains Patterson. “A Bronx shelter would have meant the city providing a school bus just for him, which the city would not do.” Her son is one of 114,085 NYC children living in a shelter. Over the past decade, the number of homeless school age children living in shelters has swelled by 70 percent.

Working full time, Patterson relies on her 22-year-old daughter to drop her three-year-old off at their new daycare center, and, like many HHA’s, Patterson has also seen her hours cut, so she has less money coming in to deal with a host of crisis-related needs.

“I work seven days a week,” she says, “Four hours here, four hours there. I don’t get to really be home. I take any case I can get, even if it is travel. It can be 8-9 hours a week with two hours travel each way for a four-hour shift.”

Right now, Patterson has a case in Seagate, Brooklyn, which takes roughly two hours each way on public transportation.

“I earn about $1,600 a month. When I got paid last week, I had less than $15 in my account,” she says.

Patterson would like to use her union education benefits to go back to school and train to be a medical assistant so she can earn more money, but with life so upside down right now, that seems impossible. “I don’t even know where I’m going to be living,” she says.

The realities of life in a shelter long-term are challenging for any family, and particularly for a working family with young and school-aged children. Residents are not allowed to have cable television or wifi, which makes it hard to keep kids occupied or access the Internet for schoolwork.

“I worry about my kids in this neighborhood. I don’t let them go outside. Last week there was a shooting by the L train. Jamaica wasn’t the greatest, but it wasn’t like this,” she says. Because she’s working, Patterson receives less than $400 a month in food stamps to feed her family of four. With no supermarkets close to the shelter, basics have become expensive and hard to get.

“If I quit my job, they would give me everything,” says Patterson. “I would get cash assistance for daycare, $700 for daycare and they would pay my rent. But then I would lose my health care and union benefits. I’d have to start from scratch. Right now, it feels like I’m tied up in red tape. I’m not a victim of domestic violence, I am not mentally ill. I became homeless because of a fire.” Patterson has continued to press city agencies for assistance and even met with city officials who are trying to find her housing and the help she needs. She’s frustrated, but not hopeless.

“The system is rigged against you. Working people in my situation are often forced to quit their job. I’m trying not to fall into that.”

1199 Magazine | November - December 2019