Waite: Monroe perseveres after being displaced by apartment fire

Susannah Risley, left, at her apartment with her aide Octavia Monroe, HHA PCA, in Schenectady on Wednesday.
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Susannah Risley, left, at her apartment with her aide Octavia Monroe, HHA PCA, in Schenectady on Wednesday.

Octavia Monroe had only lived in the apartment a few weeks, but it was already starting to feel like home. The four-bedroom unit off Albany Street in Schenectady had enough space for Monroe, her 22-year-old son, as well as her cousin and nephew. 

Monroe, 42, had hung pictures on the walls, and she was looking forward to more stability after living the previous three years in an apartment at which her maintenance requests had long gone unfulfilled. A leaky sink, a broken stove. 

She and her family moved into the Georgetta Dix Plaza apartment on Nov. 1, 2022. 

At about 3 a.m. on Dec. 12, Monroe woke up to an apartment flooded with smoke.

“Once we opened the door and ran out, that’s when the flames came. That’s when it blew up,” Monroe said. 

You’d think Monroe’s life would have completely come apart then, too. In actuality, Monroe has worked hard to keep it together. The weeks since the fire have been frustrating and unsettling, but Monroe remains steadfast. 

“I was in a dream. I thought it was all fake,” Monroe said of being displaced by a fire. “But you woke up in this reality. It’s here. So I’ve just been keeping myself busy. I haven’t really sat down and thought about that.”

In fact, we rarely take the time to consider with sufficient gravity what it means to be a tenant displaced by fire. We read news accounts of total losses and families evacuated — in this case, 13 people were evacuated and no one was injured — and we move on. But the aftermath of a fire can be complicated and confusing, often with too little support given to the people affected. 

Last year the American Red Cross Eastern New York, which helps provide immediate relief to fire victims ranging from financial assistance to medical and emotional support, responded to 142 unique events in Albany, Fulton, Montgomery, Saratoga, Schenectady and Schoharie counties. That means last year there was a serious fire roughly every 2.5 days in this region. 

Those events, 35 of which occurred in Schenectady County, translate to caring for 242 families or households, according to data supplied by the Red Cross. For example, a fire on Nott Terrace in October generated 18 cases, and Schenectady County’s total case count for the year was 88, according to the Red Cross. 

Monroe’s family was one of those cases. I met Monroe through Susannah Risley, a Gazette reader and a fiction writer who has taught at libraries throughout the state, as well as at the Hale Creek Correctional Facility in Fulton County. 

Risley told me she was inspired by Monroe, whom she’s only known for a few months. 

“As a writer, I would always find these remarkable people who had so much going for them and just didn’t have, perhaps, an opportunity to get what they needed. When I see people like that, I want other people to see them, too,” Risley said. “I think there are a lot of invisible people who do a really good job in life and who aren’t appreciated or noticed.”

Risley, 76, met Monroe as a result of being temporarily disabled. Diagnosed with lymphedema a few years ago, Risley’s legs have puffed up. She’s also in crippling pain and relies on a walker as she awaits a hip replacement. Because of her limited mobility, she needs help with basic services like prescription pickups and laundry. Monroe, who is employed as a home health aide through various service companies, helps Risley 21 hours a week.

Theirs isn’t a “Tuesdays with Morrie” kind of a story. It’s not an unlikely friendship forged out of hardship. They don’t knit together or play cards. But Monroe is reliable and friendly and takes good care of her client. After the fire, Monroe continues to show up to work, often taking the bus to reach the five elderly clients on her docket, because she knows it’s her responsibility, and because helping others provides a sense of fulfillment.  

As a mother of four kids now between the ages of 13 and 24, Monroe says she’s used to the balancing act. She remembers being a young mother having to stretch $20 when the family needed milk and diapers and eggs. But being displaced by fire adds a completely new element. 

In the first few days after the blaze, Monroe and her family — her husband isn’t in the picture at the moment — stayed in a hotel with the help of Red Cross assistance. They are currently staying with friends as they look for a new apartment. 

That process can be difficult, and affordable housing can be tough to come by. 

Yes, Schenectady County’s Department of Social Services can provide displaced residents with shelter. In 2022 the county facilitated 15 housing placements due to fire after facilitating three placements the year prior. In addition, DSS can also help connect affected residents with other community partners to address additional needs.

But navigating these supports can be overwhelming, especially when the caseworkers are often overtaxed, said Vera Johnson, managing attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Northeastern New York, a nonprofit that provides free civil legal aid to low-income upstate New Yorkers.    

“Caseworkers are very busy and full disclosure isn’t always provided,” Johnson said. “And, more often than not, when you’re dealing with a person who is dealing with a crisis, they are unable to comprehend everything that’s being thrown at them.”

In addition, some of the support provided by the system is inadequate. For instance, consider these totals that the state provides in assistance to replace furniture: 

The state will pay $182 to replace living room furniture, $145 to replace furniture in a bedroom with one bed and $142 to replace kitchen furniture (excluding appliances), Johnson said. 

“It’s very difficult to replace furniture with such little money,” Johnson said. Plus, the assistance comes in the form of a voucher, and those vouchers are only redeemable at certain locations, making it that much harder to actually use the benefit to acquire new beds, couches, tables and other pieces.

What’s more, the assistance process can drag on. For instance, insurance claims that are designed to provide some relief to both the landlords and the tenants of properties destroyed by fire often take months to resolve, Johnson said. 

Monroe’s landlord, Mohandai Edoo, said she is working with a public adjuster to help settle her insurance claim, but to date no help has arrived. 

Of course, questions of liability also arise. A resident like Monroe could be owed more money if the fire were a result of landlord negligence. While I’m not interested in litigating this specific case here, the facts of it suggest culpability is at least a question. 

That’s because firefighters aren’t able to rule out a heating unit in the wall as a cause of the fire, according to Schenectady Fire Chief Don Mareno. The fire occurred just a day after Edoo hired someone to install a heater in Monroe’s apartment. Was it put in correctly? If not, could the landlord be responsible? 

Again, that’s not my place to decide, and Edoo pointed out that a different heater was installed on the other side of the apartment months earlier and never malfunctioned. She also questions whether tenants’ cigarettes could have ignited the flames. 

But the case raises broader points about inequity in the system. 

As Johnson, of the Legal Aid Society, notes, landlords are represented in housing court more than 90% of the time, whereas tenants are represented less than 5% of the time. 

That’s an injustice that tilts power heavily in favor of property owners. 

Just last week, a state Assembly bill that could remedy this advanced to the judiciary committee. The bill calls for establishing the civil right to counsel in eviction proceedings in New York and establishing a kind of state public defender’s office for tenants being evicted. 

Making this bill law could help rebalance legal power between tenants and landlords.

Another larger issue is the fact that tenants in upstate New York face major hurdles in ensuring that their homes are safe and fully functioning. At this very moment, tenants are not able to sue landlords for repairs (although they can seek rent abatement). This right is changing with the Tenant Dignity and Safe Housing Act, which is expected to take effect in May. 

The law will essentially permit and create a process by which tenants outside New York City can sue landlords as a result of habitability issues and code violations.

Critics argue that the law will perpetuate litigiousness in our society. Come on. This is about helping to ensure a fair fight — it’s about allowing fights that frankly need to happen, happen at all. 

“One of the things that we at Legal Aid are finding is that housing for low-income families — when the families can afford it — is often unsafe and suffers from building code violations,” Johnson said. “We find very frequently that many homes have poor heating systems and that heating systems don’t work and tenants are being forced to live in substandard conditions.”

The fact is, too many of us are prone to ignoring such circumstances, often falling back on false stereotypes that people who find themselves in squalor are somehow to blame. Poverty is a kind of comeuppance for laziness, the false trope goes.   

That’s why Monroe’s experience seems so significant. The fire robbed her of nearly all her material possessions. Not only did it take all but the clothes she wore on her back, but it took family photographs. It also melted her car key and killed her cat, Trouble. 

And, yet, with the exception of the several days she spent in the hospital with a respiratory infection, she keeps working. Before shuttling between clients to jobs that pay between $15 and $18 an hour, she showers and puts on one of the four outfits and two pairs of shoes she’s been able to buy since the fire. 

Fairly shy when we met at Risley’s apartment earlier this month, Monroe became more animated when she talked about one particular client. He’s an elderly gentleman known for being ornery, reputed to scream and to hit former aides. 

But Monroe didn’t let that change the way she cared for him. Instead, when she met him, she listened respectfully and quickly realized that all the man wanted was some clean underwear and a little kindness. 

When she returned to the building one day recently, the building manager told her people had been talking all day about how much they loved Monroe. Why? 

Other people had noticed how Monroe was able to mellow out the angry resident — the home health aide who could tame the bully. 

“You should treat someone like it’s your mom or your dad,” Monroe said. “If you speak to someone who’s alone and has no family, and you treat them with respect, maybe they’ll treat you with respect.” 

Too often we ignore such basic facts of life. 

Columnist Andrew Waite can be reached at [email protected] and at 518-417-9338. Follow him on Twitter @UpstateWaite. 

Categories: Andrew Waite, News, Opinion, Schenectady, Schenectady County

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