THE BLOG
03/19/2013 02:04 pm ET Updated May 19, 2013

Heroes and Hope In Hotel Hell: The New Diaspora of Hurricane Sandy

Shame on you if you don't know... and shame on you if you do.

The night of full Blood Red moon, October 28, 2012, the ocean breached the bay on Rockaway Beach Blvd, and a 14-foot tsunami, of biblical proportions and with callous equanimity, swept away homes, cars, boardwalks, baseball cards and lives.

The storm surge reached the second floor and seeped up through the floorboards, flooding every basement and leaving SUV's bobbing around like apples, the agonizing Sophie's Choice of people over pets when the rescue boats came, a million photographs and precious possessions -- gone forever, and by the time the water receded, after the second high tide in 12 hours, the storm after the storm had officially begun. The dirty little secret washed up on the shore along with debris and san: the already marginal and disenfranchised, barely making it -- before Sandy. And then there is the creeping, recidivist menace, attaching itself to any and all porous surfaces -- mold.

"The lights went out, the water came up, and we lost everything."

Like Dorothy's house, picked up, swirled around and landing in Oz, a new diaspora of homeless and nameless survivors whose homes were completely demolished or made uninhabitable, were plopped down in any vacant hotel room from Maryland to Times Square -- some posh, some not so posh.

Errol Riley is a reluctant hero, a survivor in every sense of the word. He lost everything in the storm.

A quixotic pied piper and ubiquitous ball of energy in a fluorescent green vest, Bluetooth earpiece and infectious smile, he is the self-appointed and selfless ambassador of hope to an enclave of 106 displaced families sequestered in 28 FEMA and city funded "luxury" hotel rooms around New York City. He is the only voice and literal lifeline to indeterminable pockets of invisible, displaced Hurricane Sandy survivors at the end of their rope -- whom he calls, "the families." "Their bellies are empty, their pockets are empty, they've been lied to -- and they're mad."

In New York, the number of those made homeless by Sandy staying in hotels has diminished from 2,200 to 1,200. Every two weeks the rolls are 'scrubbed,' and by their own admission, Seth Diamond, Department of Homeless Services (DHS), nor Director of the Mayor's Housing Recovery Operations, Brad Gair, don't even know how many 'residents' there are in FEMA and city funded hotels, or so they said at the City Council oversight hearings February 5 and 26 and acknowledged that the mayor's Rapid Repair program, although to their minds successful, was an oxymoron.

"We are not poor, we're people of limited means," Rachel corrects me with a soft smile stroking her daughter's hair, as she sits on the twin bed in the tiny room she and her family have been living in at the Holiday Inn Express for the last three months. Their apartment in Bed Stuy, not even in the flood zone, was devastated. In spite of crippling Scoliosis, she shows up at every meeting, rally and testifies at City Council hearings so that seven-year-old Marisol has a shot at a better life.

By all accounts, the business of being homeless is big business...unless of course you're homeless.

The conundrum is, before the storm there were already about 55,000 people, including 21,000 children in New York City homeless shelters on any given day. By some estimates, 40,000 made 'suddenly homeless' by Sandy, with no place to go, poured into an already over-burdened and bulging system, creating a toxic stew nobody was prepared for.

What sets this apart from any other day in homeless hell is that there is all that money, all those donations to 5013c's and $50 billion in Sandy Relief -- where has all that money gone? When the families ask me about the rock concerts and the Red Cross, I tell them unless their last name is Dot Org, they won't see a penny. The only real help I have seen for people who need it most, have come from volunteers, churches and random acts of kindness.

They are being victimized twice in a Dickensian nightmare, run by a labyrinth of redundant agencies, an alphabet soup of acronyms, representing city and federal agencies who decide the survivors' fates, and in most cases, nobody has any idea what they stand for... DHS, TSA, BRC, ACS, HPD, CPS, FEMA and the Red Cross. It's the only game in town and all that is standing between a hot meal, a Metro Card, affordable housing or living in the snake pit of the Salvation Army Women's Shelter on Franklin in the Bronx where they slept on open cots in a big room, one bathroom for hundreds of people and where children witnessed '"lewd sexual comments, lesbian sex, he-she males, and an attempted abduction of a young girl."

Every two weeks, since its inception, the TSA (Transitional Sheltering Assistance) extensions, are meted out in robo-calls, 'to whom it may concern' letters slipped under doors the day before, or hostile case management workers banging at the door threatening arrest or jail if you don't leave immediately. It's like waiting for the other shoe to drop, in two-week increments. More egregiously, families are being evicted BEFORE their checkout dates, for no reason known to them.

Apparently, case management workers from Samaritan Village and BRC, hired with lucrative contracts by the city, to deal directly with these people, are randomly assigned, nobody really knows how, but one thing is sure, they have consistently 'intimidated, 'abused', 'disrespected', 'were hostile and rude' toward, and most incredibly, have 'threatened arrest and jail, calling police, evicting and locking out of hotel rooms.' They are both therapeutic communities, their normal clientele; indigent homeless, chronic alcoholics, recently released prison population, severely mentally ill and drug addicts. They have no training in dealing with Post Traumatic Stress victims, children, babies, disabled seniors and those who need medications. At a rally to protest this treatment at the controversial 12 story BRC headquarters on 25th Street, a merchant on the block told me, it houses "violent criminals, schizophrenics and registered sex offenders." ..."we have to hire private security guards to protect our business from them, they urinate on you."

Pamela, Sean and their three children had been living in the Park Central hotel for almost four months, after the water came up to the second floor of their Hammels House NYCHA projects in Far Rockaway. They were in Zone A the night of the storm and were under mandatory evacuation. On February 18, two weeks before the check out date on the letter from the Park Central Hotel, of March 10, two Samaritan Village case workers came to her room unannounced they had to get out or they would call the cops and arrest them for fraud, she pleaded with them, her daughter was in Roosevelt Hospital, when they were returned to their mold infested apartment with not heat to this day. They were greeted with an eviction notice from the manager for $3,000 back rent, while they were displaced. Here is her text...

"we were in park central hotel on, feb 18 i was told to leave my daughter was in the emergency room when ebony our samaritan village case worker told us to leave my daughter, her tonsils were swollen and her asthma started acting up she was admitted in the hospital there is mold in my apartment there is mice feces and mice in my apartment our eyes are burning in the apartment my son daquan is traumatized and wakes up with nightmares and wets the bed, since we've been back in the apartment i have to use the machine on the kids."

Shame on all you CEO's and mayors and governors and presidents, shame on you City Council members who leave before the families' testimony, in fact, they should go first! Shame on you for not knowing about this 'dirty little secret' washed up on the shore by Sandy.

Shatassia, Dashawn and Daquan travel two hours each day from their moldy apartment with no heat in Far Rockaway back to PS 111 (around the corner from the hotel where they lived for three months). "It costs $6 a day, but it's worth it, they give us mad respect" says Dashawn. Eleven-year-year old Shatassia will be having a violin recital soon and is keeping a diary. Fourteen-year- old Kashawn is Errol's inspiration and is starting track, and four-year-old Daquan has taken to the piano. I told him, "Stevie Wonder and Mozart started playing at your age."

If there is a gift in all this, it's that these kids have a glimpse of a possibility of life past the projects. On Valentines Day some friends from East End Cares, volunteers I met in Rockaway, heard about the families in hotels not having food and they pulled a few strings and they were all invited to Hill Country Barbeque for an amazing dinner. They took the kids back to see the smokers and most of them had never seen live music! There was a country band, Shatassia plays the violin but had no idea there was such a thing as a fiddle.

But today was a good day, there were tears of joy, not sadness and plenty of love and smiles to go around. The kids anxiously waited for Errol to meet them at PS 111, they hadnt seen each other since the eviction. They had all written him letters of thanks. He was walking the 20 blocks and six avenues from his hotel to the school because he only had one swipe left on his Metro Card . When he got there it was pouring rain, and it's a good thing, so the kids didn't see him cry when each read their letters to him. "I'm going to frame this and put it in the wall." he told them, as he asked for a "group hug". I thought about what he said on the way home thinking, that he had no wall.

"It's all gonna come together..but the moral of this story is, after every difficulty come ease. Ease does come. It comes in degrees and stages, but it do come. It's coming right along. Can't stop. Won't stop. This is only part one."


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