New York Times Neediest Cases

New Pressures, and Commitments, After Fire Takes Family’s Home - The New York Times

Tajiauna Spence and three of her daughters ate dinner at a McDonald’s in Chelsea late last month. Her grandson, Styles, was the center of the group’s affections as he played with his gloves and made random demands.

“I want my toy,” he said.

“You got to eat your food first,” Ms. Spence said. “Then you get the toy.”

A holiday atmosphere still lingered over New York City. New Year’s Eve was then two nights away, but even around the warmth of her family, Ms. Spence could not deny that her 2015 was anything but celebratory. She became homeless one bitter cold night last January when a fire broke out in an apartment below hers in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn; she and her children have since lived in a homeless shelter in the Brownsville section.

“We had no heat last night,” Ms. Spence, 45, said. “And they have a real bad mice problem. The mice eat your food. The fridge also makes loud noises. I’m so ready to leave.”

But the greatest source of stress, she said, resides in the everyday things that have changed. Her commute from Brownsville to Manhattan, where she works for the city’s Human Resources Administration, is exhausting, and caring for her daughters and a grandchild exacerbates the pressure.

Ms. Spence’s daily routine of picking up and dropping off children resembles a never-ending pinball game; the homeless shelter, she said, cannot allow her children to be there without parental supervision, so she often frets about where they can pass the time when she is not around.

Her daughters Grace, 16, and London, 9, are enrolled in after-school programs. But last winter they were not, and Ms. Spence designated a public library near their old apartment as a safe haven.

Recalling the library routine, Ms. Spence seemed upset. “The first time I didn’t get there before the library closed,” she said, pausing for a moment. “I have to be there on time for them.”

Earlier in 2015, she gained custody of Styles, 3. He was not living with her when the fire occurred, nor was his mother or his aunt, Tatyana, Ms. Spence’s 20-year-old daughter, who is a sophomore at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh.

Ms. Spence had lived comfortably up until the fire in a subsidized three-bedroom apartment spacious enough for Grace, London and her to each have their own rooms.

Smoke made its way into London’s room around 4 a.m. It was a frigid Wednesday and dirty snow covered the street. London might have kept on sleeping had Grace not awakened her after smelling the smoke from her own room. Their mother soon woke up and tried the front door, but the haze made their hall impassable. The apartment was blurring into a cloudy, disorienting swirl.

Ms. Spence rushed to a window and discovered firefighters were amassing on the street. She started banging on the window.

“I was just sitting there praying,” Ms. Spence said. “I did not want to go down that fire escape and pick which of the children had to go first.”

She did not have to make that choice. A firefighter’s ladder reached the window, shattering it, and another firefighter soon opened their front door.

After being treated for smoke inhalation at Woodhull Medical and Mental Health Center, the family walked back home, hoping they might be able to go back to sleep in their beds. “At first I thought it wouldn’t be so bad,” Ms. Spence said. “But when I saw it, I just knew.” Their section of the building was scorched. “It went from bad to worse very quickly,” she said.

The Red Cross helped the family for a time, but it became clear their building would not be restored soon. The cause of the fire remains uncertain.

Ms. Spence, on top of her daily stresses, has been struggling financially. She recently fell behind on her monthly child care payments for Styles. Catholic Big Sisters and Big Brothers had been helping the family, and it turned to Catholic Charities Archdiocese of New York, one of the organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund.Catholic Charities used $400 from the fund to cover the child care payment.

The family finished dinner at the McDonald’s. Styles got his toy. They had reminisced about the fire long enough. But Tatyana, who was away in college when the fire occurred, said the night still troubled her. She felt helpless and wished she could have assisted her mother.

Asked how she felt Ms. Spence had handled things, Tatyana was seized by emotion.

“I think she did really well,” she said.