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Judy Atchinson's A Stubborn Woman
by Judy Atchinson

A Stubborn Woman

A Daily Gazette community blog
QUEST leader's wanderings and musings

Be a small hero in your own life

Greed is the basic cause of misery. If you extinguish greed, you are clean and free wherever you are. The mountains, rivers and earth do not block the light; the light of your eyes.
-- She-Hsien

Yvonne McCain was the lead plaintiff in a Legal Aid Society lawsuit that took 25 years and more than 50 court orders to resolve. She herself never received a cash reward, but on any given night, 10,000 families, including 17,000 children, receive emergency shelter from the city of New York as a result of the lawsuit. Following will be portions of the lawsuit.

Yvonne McCain, et. al; Plaintiff
Michael R. Bloomberg, etc; et. al; Defendants

1. More than 25 years ago, I went to the city for help after my children and I were evicted from our apartment. At first, the city said there was no available shelter. Eventually, the city sent my family to the Martinique Hotel, where we stayed for several years.

2. The mattresses were ripped, burnt, bug-infested and stained with urine on both sides. The sheets were greasy and stained. The one bureau had no drawers. The rooms were infested with rats and bugs. We had little heat and often no hot water. For our first week the smoke detectors rang each night for no reason. After I complained, a repairman came and removed the batteries so that the smoke detectors no longer worked.

3. Our first night there was one of the worst nights of my life. I spent hours sponging the mattresses with disinfectant and trying to clean our room. The windows in our 11th floor rooms were jammed open and had no guardrails. I stayed up all night terrified that one of my children might fall out a window.

4. There was no refrigerator for milk for my children. I kept a gallon of milk on the window ledge to try to keep it cold. I had to hang our food in a bag on the wall to try to keep vermin from eating our food.

5. The Legal Aid Society helped me convince the city to give my family shelter after we had been turned away. I wanted to be part of this to make things better for other families who needed shelter. I thought we could get clean mattresses and guardrails at the windows. I wanted the lawsuit to help homeless families like mine retain some of their dignity; just because you don’t have any place to live doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have dignity. I never thought the lawsuit I brought would be so important and help as many people as it has.

6. A lot has happened in my life in the past 25 years. In 1996 my children and I were finally able to settle down in an apartment in Staten Island which we got through a section 8 program. I went back to school to become a counselor. My children have grown up and I am a grandmother. I am also a cancer survivor.

7. The case I helped start in 1983 has accomplished so much. The courts told the city to stop leaving homeless families to sleep in welfare offices and intake centers and said there must be standards for shelters and hotels where families are sent. As a result, the city has not been allowed to turn families away because it says the shelters are full.

8. Recently I found out that my cancer has not come back. When my lawyer, Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society, called me to discuss the fact the city had agreed to settle, I wasn’t feeling very well, but when he told me that under the settlement, there would be a permanent right to safe, adequate shelter for families like mine, I was so happy and relieved. This is what we went to court for so many years ago and I am so glad that I lived to see it happen.

9. I respectfully request that the court approve the settlements in the above-captioned cases, so that other families do not have to go through what my children and I did.

-- Yvonne McCain
7th day of December 2008

And therein lies a tale. Do we know if the same precepts follow here? Do we make sure that homeless families still have dignity? Do you know, have you visited the hotel/motels where they are put up? Some of the shelters are wonderful, but not all. Should children be lodged in the same motels where prostitutes ply their trade? Would you and your children be comfortable spending a night there? Yes, this is your business, this is your city. The standards your city sets represents you. The government and social services organizations are your employees. You as taxpayers pay their salaries.

You have a responsibility to monitor your tax dollars. Schenectady High has one of the longest failure records in the state. Graduation rate is 59%. 59%! School is supported by you, the taxpayers. Show a little interest. Niskayuna pays one third less per student for education and has an outstanding education system. One of the reasons is that input by residents is consistent and involvement is strong. Remember “faint heart never won fair lady?” Well faint heart never won good schools or competent officials, or anything much at all.

Let’s talk about our rehabs or any rehabs anywhere -- success rate is just about nil everywhere; failure rate is almost 90% (at least in Sch’dy). This is a real expensive proposition both in monetary terms and human lives. Whole families are decimated by drugs and alcohol. It cuts across all lines and barriers. Rich and poor, all races, creeds and colors destroyed by this maelstrom. Families scattered, children lost. I had one child say to me last week “but everybody drinks.” “But everybody doesn’t drink” I responded, but you know I don’t think she believed me.

Different world

This is a different, newer, younger world. Children as young as 11 and 12, drinking, using and dealing. All scraping the whirlwind of addiction and bringing other evils in on its coattails. Assault, robbery, hepatitis, HIV/AIDS. Spousal abuse, child abuse, and kids believing that this is normal; that everyone lives this way.

I remember writing about a 14-year-old boy living with a man in his 20’s and the two of them sat around all day and smoked weed. To this day the child -- now 16 -- has a habit as long as a lifetime. He see’s nothing wrong with it and is eternally high, which is aggravated by an ADD problem. He steals to supply his friends with Bud and seems to believe that this set up really makes him a man.

To make matters worse the 23-year-old is now being brought up on (child) sex abuse charges. A little girl of 11-12 ran away; says she is not going home because a family friend (and family dealer) had been having forcible sex with her for over a year. Come to find out there were other young girls also. Police have been called and hopefully arrests are eminent.

We had visited parents before and warned them of this man, because we felt something odd was going on, and indeed it was. And now there’s this 12-year-old child who is living in a shelter and doesn’t want to go home. EVER. And this man, if you can call him that, says it’s all her fault – “She seduced me.” That’s a direct quote. Being high, being hip, being down, all of these stupid stupid words. Piles of stoners Z’d out in the same bed, a little of this, a little of that. One young man told me that someone had sex with a young girl over his (the afore-said young man) shoulder, and that he did or said nothing. And aren’t we all quilty of that horrible silence?

Nancy Staley gives a speech on YouTube. She seems prepared to give the speech but the speech doesn’t seem prepared. It sounds ripped from her sternum. She is speaking to us, and to reality TV, and she is speaking through reality TV.

“I want this group to get it” she says, “that when you lose your addict, the hope is over. It is final. Death is final. And this is not fun or funny. This is so serious. Because when you’re dead you’re dead and you’re gone and you’ll never be here again… And you’ll never hug your mom, and you’re never going to see your friends and it’s over. And you’re either in the ground deteriorating or you’re in a box of dust, like I have my son now.”

“You can live,” she says, “and you can live a long life. You don’t have to live a fantastic, incredible, celebrity life. You can have a boring, predictable life and you cannot believe how rich it is, until you’re in it.

And I believe her and I hope you believe her, and I hope we make our families and friends and youth believe her. For it’s not about excitement and hope and highs and lows. It’s not about glamour or fabulous wealth. It’s about life, day to day life, and how we live it. It’s about the gift we leave our progeny of just putting one foot in front of the other and leaving this place, this planet we call home, just a little bit better than we found it.

This is something we all can do. Be a small hero in our own life, in our own town in the world and the small place we live in.


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