Poor and Sick in America: Me and My Neighbors


It is 7:26 a.m. and the sun is rising over Syracuse. Chimney smoke flows flat across the city: the temperature is -10. The snow plow in the parking lot below my window is irritating with its back-up horn.

With the thermometer in my apartment turned up full to 85 degrees, the temperature by my bed is 68. The temperature at the windowsill is too low to register. A few years ago, the owners of this 176-unit, HUD-subsidized apartment building decided to rehab it so they could sell the building. The new windows either are substandard or were not properly installed. Either way, 176 tenants are cold all winter.

The new management tells us to wear more clothes, or cover the windows with opaque plastic. The plastic shuts out what little sunlight we get, and without sunlight we are all vulnerable to seasonal affective disorder. There is generally—with the exception of George W. Bush—a correlation between intelligence and income: stupid people are poor.

More than 90 percent of the tenants in this building, which is typical of all HUD high-rise apartment buildings, are below the poverty level. My Social Security is now $850 a month. Of that, this month $179 is going to National Grid, the power company, to pay for heat that is literally going out the window.

We have had a Tenant Association since the building’s erection 35 years ago. The Tenant Association plans parties which are poorly attended, and starts fights. Sharon Sherman, who is the executive director—and only employee—of the Greater Syracuse Tenants Network, has taken over our Tenant Association. Her HUD grant, issued through the City of Syracuse, is to work with the homeless but instead she comes into our home, takes over the Tenant Association meeting, appoints the president, sets the agenda, and runs the meeting. How can she do that? She has a grant and no supervisor. Management can’t touch her. City Hall fired her when she worked there, but left us as her helpless victims.

I have tried to start another tenants’ group—the Tenant Action Council—but Sherman is working against us and management won’t recognize us. The law requires that we be heard but who’s going to enforce the law? Legal Aide? They are so under-funded and over-worked that every day they have a triage meeting to see where they can refer cases. Lawyers only work for money and the tenants have none. If you can’t afford a lawyer to press the law then there is no law.

A citizen action group wants me to attend a city hearing about Centro, the bus company, which is planning to cut services and raise fares. The meeting is the same night as the Tenant Action Council. There is no tenant who will substitute for me at that meeting. Of my two strongest supporters, one is so sick that she turns off her phone and sleeps all day. I haven’t been able to reach her in almost a week. The other person describes herself as “timid.” I’m it; I’m all they’ve got.

The last time I went to City Hall for an evening hearing, they had locked the only wheelchair-accessible door. The wind-chill for Thursday is predicted to be below zero. The bus drops me off in my wheelchair and if I find the door locked, what am I to do? Freeze?

Yesterday I wanted to attend a jazz concert at a hotel three blocks away. We have had more than seven feet of snow this winter, most of it in the last three weeks. The temperatures have been dangerously low for longer than I’ve ever seen them in the fifty years I’ve lived in Syracuse. I can bundle up warm enough to go three blocks, despite my sedentary state and low metabolism, but will my wheelchair make it?

Since before Thanksgiving, I have been trying to get wheelchair repair but cannot because the vendor who sold me the chair failed to get the Medicaid repair contract. No other vendor in the county will repair a wheelchair that they did not sell. I finally was directed to a vendor in California, which charged $249 to replace the charger—and $350 to drive 140 miles from Albany to do it. Now their corporate headquarters won’t let them schedule any new appointments, no reason given.

I had to work through a state senator’s office, which had the heft to get the county director of Medicaid to work with them. This time I was told to call some company in Texas, which sent a repairman from Fulton, only 29 miles away. He says that in addition to two new batteries, I need two new drive wheels and four new balance wheels. They’re bare.

He went back to Fulton and filed the order. It was rejected because, they said, there was no wheelchair with the serial number he had filed. A week later he came back to re-copy the serial number. Turned out he had gotten the number right the first time, so he took a picture of it with his iPod or whatever, and sent it back. Meanwhile, my doctor and I had decided that after waiting two months for repair, the only option was to get a new wheelchair. His office manager worked with me to file the application.

Two weeks ago, I found out that Medicare had rejected the application because it was not filed in the right form. They’d sent it back to the doctor’s office where it had been sitting for two weeks. When I called, neither the doctor nor the office manager were in.

Meanwhile, the doctor’s office has canceled my next three appointments. Why? Because a hospital has hired him for two days a week. The hospital pays him more than his private patients do, and he repeatedly has to go to the bank to take out loans to meet his office payroll. He is the only private physician I know who accepts Medicaid and he’s going broke.

So yesterday I dared not go to the jazz concert because my wheelchair tires are bare and every time the building superintendent plows the snow, he blocks the access to the sidewalks and the curb-cut at the front door and then doesn’t shovel them out. And we report it to the manager and she does nothing. And her superiors won’t recognize the Tenants Action Council. And we are all too sick to fight back. And you don’t know we even exist because we are warehoused in HUD-subsidized high-rise apartment buildings, instead of being allowed to live in private apartments in your neighborhood where you can get to know us and send your teenage kids to shovel our driveways.

A bit of a poem from the back of my mind:
I can’t go on
I mean I can’t go on
I really can’t go on
So I guess I’ll get up
And go on.

Have a blessed day, all you people who are healthy enough to work and therefore able to earn more than $850 a month.

About annecwoodlen

I am a tenth generation American, descended from a family that has been working a farm that was deeded to us by William Penn. The country has changed around us but we have held true. I stand in my grandmother’s kitchen, look down the valley to her brother’s farm and see my great-great-great-great-great-grandmother Hannah standing on the porch. She is holding the baby, surrounded by four other children, and saying goodbye to her husband and oldest son who are going off to fight in the Revolutionary War. The war is twenty miles away and her husband will die fighting. We are not the Daughters of the American Revolution; we were its mothers. My father, Milton C. Woodlen, got his doctorate from Temple University in the 1940’s when—in his words—“a doctorate still meant something.” He became an education professor at West Chester State Teachers College, where my mother, Elizabeth Hope Copeland, had graduated. My mother raised four girls and one boy, of which I am the middle child. My parents are deceased and my siblings are estranged. My fiancé, Robert H. Dobrow, was a fighter pilot in the Marine Corps. In 1974, his plane crashed, his parachute did not open, and we buried him in a cemetery on Long Island. I could say a great deal about him, or nothing; there is no middle ground. I have loved other men; Bob was my soul mate. The single greatest determinate of who I am and what my life has been is that I inherited my father’s gene for bipolar disorder, type II. Associated with all bipolar disorders is executive dysfunction, a learning disability that interferes with the ability to sort and organize. Despite an I.Q. of 139, I failed twelve subjects and got expelled from high school and prep school. I attended Syracuse University and Onondaga Community College and got an associate’s degree after twenty-five years. I am nothing if not tenacious. Gifted with intelligence, constrained by disability, and compromised by depression, my employment was limited to entry level jobs. Being female in the 1960’s meant that I did office work—billing at the university library, calling out telegrams at Western Union, and filing papers at a law firm. During one decade, I worked at about a hundred different places as a temporary secretary. I worked for hospitals, banks, manufacturers and others, including the county government. I quit the District Attorney’s Office to manage a gas station; it was more honest work. After Bob’s death, I started taking antidepressants. Following doctor’s orders, I took them every day for twenty-six years. During that time, I attempted%2
This entry was posted in Call-a-Bus, Centro, disability, Government Services, HUD-subsidized housing, Medicaid, Medicare, Onondaga County, physician, Poverty, power wheelchairs, Powerlessness, Transportation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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