A Letter from Yesenia: “A war without notice”

Yesenia, aged 14, has been homeless for nearly three years now. As young as she is, she has already lived in several homeless shelters with her mom and her two sisters.

For most of Yesenia’s young life, the family lived in a comfortable three-bedroom apartment in Queens. But after six years building a home there, they were suddenly told by their landlord that they had to leave – even though they remained current with their rent.

After being illegally evicted, Yesenia, her mom Jacqueline and her two sisters had nowhere to go and so became homeless. The process of losing one’s home and trying to get into a NYC shelter is devastating and traumatic for any family, but Yesenia suffers from spina bifida and her older sister has a significant learning disability.

While her spina bifida has impacted Yesenia’s health and mobility – requiring several hospitalizations and surgeries – it has not diminished her spirit. She finds strength in the example of her mother who, in spite of homelessness and the difficulty of providing for her three daughters, continues to work as a seamstress. While Jacqueline is an excellent seamstress, the work simply doesn’t provide enough income to pay rent and support a family of four in New York. And so the family has been living in a homeless shelter since 2011, trying to save enough money to move into their own apartment.

Just over two years ago Jacqueline, Yesenia and her sisters came to the Coalition for help. Tony Taylor, the Coalition’s Crisis Intervention Program Manager and other Crisis Intervention staff begin intervening on the family’s behalf when Jacqueline told them of the terrible conditions and mistreatment in the shelter. They also helped the family with essentials like identification, benefits and holiday gifts for the children, while diligently working with them to identify scarce housing options.

Recently, Yesenia wrote a letter to Tony, simply to express what Tony means to her and her family. The letter goes on for six-pages and says so much more – ending with Yesenia stating, “P.S. I tried to keep it as short as possible.”

Here are a few excerpts from that letter:

On life in the shelter:

Last summer, I spent all summer in a hospital. Due to my condition I can get serious wounds and infections that happen within. I came out four days before school started. In a way my mom was glad she had no peace in the shelter because there is an infestation of rats, roaches, mold, etc. At least I was in a clean place… When I had surgery on my foot I had to rest with my feet up, my mom putting her coat on the floor to lift my feet, and the shelter staff troubled her not to do so!…

The shelter is horrible. A shelter unit is only one room, not like my home in which we had three bedrooms, our living room, in peace, where we could all relax! In the shelter you’re not able to take a shower correctly, there’s just a string of hot water. Mom had to boil water on the stove to have enough water to rinse, but the stove doesn’t work, refrigerator doesn’t cool, and water is always on the floor from the ceiling that comes undone (because of a patch they don’t fix). It’s happened three times with all that yellow water pouring down. The elevator has a sign not to use it and my family had to help me up five flights of stairs…

On trying to get an education while living in a shelter:

I am going to a charter school in Brooklyn, but living at a shelter in the Bronx… They’ll log you out, or transfer you to another shelter in the middle of the semester, on a school day at 12:30am, doing intake until 3am, until we have to make our way to school… We’re also required to participate in fire drills to show us how to get out, but which totally imbalances us, disturbing our sleep at 1:30am or 3am, even on a school day. They say they are doing their job…

I am letting you know they’re not taking away my education, that’s my right…

They do punish us, the children, the future of tomorrow… Being homeless is a target of war without notice, they’re trying to rip my education by leaving us stranded somewhere… Remember: it is the intention that determines the quality of the action…

On the future:

I have no hidden agenda – this is my future… I’m speaking not just for me, but for generations to come. I’m speaking for us, the homeless, hungry, the desperately pleading (just not being heard)…

We’re your own children. You’re deciding in what world we’re going to grow up in. Mom says: you are what you do, not what you say…

And finally, on Crisis Intervention Program Manager, Tony Taylor:

This letter is to let you know what Tony Taylor means, represents to me. You see through my eyes all the injustice as a witness and have the words for the voiceless…

I’m blessed with Tony Taylor. We receive value, respect, he empowers us, gives us hope. I pray everyone would have his eye, eye of mercy and compassion. This world wouldn’t be as it is today. Thank you for hearing me out as always, being a voice for the voiceless. Thank you Tony for what I know and don’t know because you’re always on a mission of results. I have you in my prayers to be able to move mountains and tear down doors.

Growing up in the NYC shelter system has made Yesenia an authority on a subject matter she never asked to be an authority on – homelessness. She is one of a record 53,000 homeless individuals living in NYC shelters, including 23,000 other children. But like each one of those girls and boys, she is distinct and unique. Yesenia astutely captures and manages her pain and suffering with wisdom well beyond her years, and she defiantly refuses to accept that we, as a society, can’t do better.

We are moved by, and in awe of, Yesenia’s generous and unshakable spirit. But no child should have to feel the way that Yesenia has felt over these past three years. It is time for us all to step up for kids like Yesenia and finally address the crisis of homelessness that disgraces our city and our humanity. As Yesenia says, “We’re your own children. You’re deciding what world we’re going to grow up in.”

Yesenia isn’t asking for much – just a chance for a home that she and her family can call their own. She’ll do the rest – you can bet on that.

NY homeless population increasing exponentially

The number of homeless sleeping each night in the New York City shelter system has surpassed 50,000 people, for the first time in three decades. According to a report by the Coalition for the Homeless, more children and adults are homeless now in New York City than at any time since the Great Depression.

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