Safe For Now

From: Robina Suwol
Date: 16 Jan 2002
Time: 16:06:25
Remote Name:


"SAFE FOR NOW" By Kelly Crow

 Along a quiet stretch of Mosholu Parkway North in the leafy Bronx neighborhood of Norwood, a red house sits wedged between beige apartment buildings. Behind one of four shamrock-green doors is a staircase leading up to four floors of white rooms with blue beds and closets with coat hangers for baby clothes. Three sets of arched windows overlook a park playground. To passers-by, who know nothing of its history or inhabitants, such a house might seem innocuous, even inviting. But while rent is never required, the price for a room here is high. Officially, it is the Montefiore Medical Center Lead Safe House, the nation's first temporary home for children poisoned by lead and one of three in the city. Nationwide, only Baltimore offers similar lodgings, and in New York, the house's existence is little known. Still, a waiting list is common. Those turned away must seek safety in a hotel room, on a friend's couch or, often, in a city shelter. Families staying there call it the safe house. Until last month, Darien Young, 3, and his parents called it home. More than 100 years after New York doctors first diagnosed lead poisoning in children, and 42 years after the city banned lead from paint, children are still being poisoned first, treated later. In November, the New York State Court of Appeals issued a ruling that may make it easier for victims of lead poisoning to sue their landlords for damages. But laws governing lead poisoning are labyrinthine, and extinction of the public-health problem is proving difficult. New York is a city of aging buildings, and 70 percent of its three million housing units still contain lead. A vast majority can be found along the so-called lead belt, a swath of low-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens where the incidence of lead poisoning is much higher than anywhere else in the state. The city's Health Department says numbers are dropping steadily, reflecting a national trend resulting mainly from the elimination of leaded gasoline. But in 2000, the city documented 4,831 new cases of children with neurological damage after breathing lead-laced dust or eating lead paint chips. Advocates say the number of children with lead poisoning is 9,000 to 30,000 citywide. But Montefiore, which got city money to build its experimental safe house in 1991, can take only a handful. As with any house, it comes with its own rules and relationships. What is it like to move into this house of shared misfortune? Once inside, how is it to juggle the demands of landlord, lawyer, doctor, boss, neighbor and child? The family of Darien Young spent five months in a safe house. This is their story. The Diagnosis Last July 19, Darien's mother, Wanda La Santa, sat in a dim examining room at the Montefiore Medical Center's lead clinic, listening. Ms. La Santa is 33, with high cheekbones and upswept auburn hair. She is the head cook at Cardinal Hayes High School in the South Bronx, and she loves the work. She has three boys and she is usually cheerful and talkative. That morning she said little, though, because nurses were explaining why her youngest son, Darien, was not well. He seemed content that morning, driving a plastic car up and down her leg. Across the room stood her boyfriend of six years, Darien's father, Roger Young. He is 28 and boyish, a cook at Cardinal Spellman High in the Bronx. He loves buying bootleg movies and playing video games. He leaned against the bed with arms folded, head bowed. It is overwhelming to be educated on lead poisoning when the reason for the lesson is happily playing on the floor with clinic toys. Ms. La Santa was seven months pregnant with Darien when she and Roger moved into the second story of a house on East 220th Street in Williamsbridge. Her two older sons, Derrick and Jerel, and the family pit bull, Niko, also lived with them. The couple disliked the place because it was lopsided and dark, but they had decided to stay and save up to buy a house. Darien was a good baby, she said. He had her wide eyes and Mr. Young's dimples. He rarely got sick, which was why she became worried when he stopped eating and refused to go to bed. His speech seemed slurred. On July 11, she took him to the pediatrician. The next day, the nurse called, frantic, saying that Darien's blood-lead level was 34 micrograms per deciliter. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have set the acceptable lead level at under 10 micrograms, the bar for concern at 20. (In the past, children died with levels above 80.) Sitting in the clinic, the nurse said Darien's level of 34 was discouraging but not fatal. Lead, she continued, is a soft, silvery gray metal once loved by painters because it made paint easy to apply and scrub clean. The federal government banned its use in paint in 1977 and from gasoline in 1990. Children exposed to high levels of lead suffer learning and behavioral problems, stunted growth, hearing loss and hyperactivity. Lead poisoning has been linked to lower I.Q.'s. The damage can be kept from worsening, but is irreversible. The nurse then pulled out a questionnaire. Did she know how Darien got poisoned? No, Ms. La Santa said. Did she ever catch him eating paint chips? No. Did he ever pull up and peer out windows? Yes, to watch the ice-cream truck drive by. Can your landlord afford to fix the apartment? Probably not. Can you stay in a hotel for a while? No. Ms. La Santa weakly held up a hand. "Wait," she said. "I'm just really upset." "I know," the nurse said. "But the Health Department found 84 lead violations in your apartment. The longer you keep Darien there, the worse he'll get. You need to get him out as soon as possible." "But my mind is running too fast," she said. "It's a lot to handle, and this is all new to me." "I'm afraid it usually is." The nurse handed her a flier. At the top was a telephone number for information about the Montefiore Medical Center Lead Safe House, a five-minute walk from the clinic. An apartment on the top floor had just been emptied and repainted the day before. The family could probably move in for a few months. That way, they could continue with Darien's treatment and search for a new apartment. The pit bull was not allowed. Ms. La Santa's eyes searched her boyfriend's face. He nodded feebly. She filled out the paperwork. Within hours, they would have to pack and leave the familiar for the safe house. "All I want to do is blow up our house, and I can't," Mr. Young said, quietly, as they walked out to the street. "I can't do anything. I can't stand it. I need a cigarette." The Move The safe house has four floors, all branching off one staircase. Each apartment shares the pay phones at the far end of the second and third floors. A door on the second floor leads into a clinic, conference room and downstairs playroom. Here is where the den mothers, Marsha Carrington and Gladys Montalvo, work during office hours. Ms. Carrington's father spent 30 years working for Dutch Boy Paint. Ms. Montalvo spent 14 years at a city Head Start center before joining the lead safe house when it opened. Both women are federally certified lead paint inspectors; because of past corruption, they have grown wary of city-certified inspectors. They are also the only authority that most safe house families ever see. Ms. Montalvo greets newcomers, lists the house rules, listens to complaints and offers to baby-sit. Ms. Carrington looks after public housing requests, runs awareness workshops on lead paint and buys diapers in emergencies. On July 23, four days after the clinic visit, Ms. Montalvo showed Darien Young's parents to No. 4A, a one-bedroom apartment on the fourth floor, facing the park. Smoking and drinking were not allowed, she told them as they climbed the flights, and neither was overnight company. Calls could be made on the pay phones until 10 p.m., but loud music was discouraged. There was a Laundromat around the corner, and the police were particular about illegal parking. Ms. La Santa walked in, her hands filled with soggy bags of frozen beef and Parmesan cheese. It was summer, and the sunny apartment was heavy with heat. Mr. Young tugged at his white T-shirt, already slick. "Smells like paint," he said. He walked from the front door by the kitchen into the adjoining living area, past the bathroom and then into the bedroom, which had an air- conditioner and three rubbery twin mattresses. He flipped on the window unit. "God, I hate that smell now," Ms. La Santa said. The room seemed sterile, but in the kitchen cabinets were signs of a former family: a paring knife, packets of duck sauce and a refrigerator magnet advertising a lawyer specializing in lead cases. Neither had slept much the night before, which was spent planning and packing. Because the apartment was small, Derrick and Jerel would stay with their grandfather in Pemberton, N.J. Darien was spending the day with another relative. Big furniture had been given to friends for storage. Back at the old house, the landlady had heard the news and was crying. What did she know? She had no money, but she loved that baby. Inside, the bedrooms were still littered with clothes. Niko the pit bull was pacing the bathroom floor. They could not afford to board him with a veterinarian. Still, Mr. Young couldn't bear to put Niko to sleep until they had finished moving. It took the couple all that day and part of the next to shuffle their belongings in Ms. La Santa's red Plymouth Acclaim. During one trip, they heard a radio commercial about a law office that handled asbestos and lead cases. He wrote the number on his hand, and she used the pay phone to leave a message. "It's strange," he said. "I never even heard those commercials before." By the next night, all they needed to move was Darien. Ms. La Santa picked him up and led him into their safe house room. The boy giggled as Mr. Young screwed in the legs of the crib. "I think he'll get used to this place faster than we do," Mr. Young said. "It's a cute place," Ms. La Santa said, "but you know that feeling you have when you're going home? I don't have that now, and I'm afraid I will. That's what depresses me, thinking of this room as home, because it's nice and we can't stay here. As soon as we feel settled here, I know we'll have to leave. And who knows if the next place will be safe?" The Neighbors If the safe house has the air of a dorm, its community lunches are orientation and play date. Ms. Montalvo organizes these potluck lunches because she thinks it is healthy for the families, thrown together in such sad circumstance, to become friends. The camaraderie can indeed be comforting, but emotions are also raw. Stress levels stay high. "But it's good, especially for the children, because everyone is going through the same thing," she said. Most of the house, about five families, showed up when a sign posted in early August announced a lunch in the playroom. Ms. La Santa and Mr. Young were still on summer break, so they had time to take Darien. It would be his first chance to play with the other children, and they hoped he behaved. He got angry so easily these days. Downstairs, tiny Cookie Monster chairs lined the playroom. A toddler in a pink satin dress and black slippers waddled around. Two boys, 5 and 6, in matching green shorts, stacked cardboard bricks onto each other and, soon, onto Darien. In the corner on a long table were peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, lasagna, tuna salad and watermelon. By now, every family knew that lead siphons iron and vitamins out of children's bodies, so the emphasis is on nutritious foods at community lunches. Mr. Young felt uneasy, though. In a room of mothers, he was the only man. Sitting down in a corner, he concentrated on his plate as Ms. La Santa made conversation. Remedios Flores, she learned, lived on the first floor with her son, Edwin. His levels were nearly normal, but Ms. Flores had elevated levels and was pregnant. Aurelia de Jesus, 27, lived in 2A, opposite the reclusive Smiths. Ms. de Jesus had the two boys in green shorts, Juan and Marco. Her youngest, Blanca Flores, was 2 and had a blood lead level of 23. The biggest family in the house was that of Gloria Ramirez, 24, who made the lasagna. She and her husband, Joey, and four of their five children lived in 3A. They moved into the house in March. At the lunch, Ms. La Santa suddenly felt she wasn't getting enough air. With thanks and apologies, she grabbed Darien and Mr. Young and they walked upstairs in silence. The problems of others were too much, she said. Her life felt too unsettled for new friends. She had to concentrate. She needed to get Darien's lead levels down. He needed iron, and she needed money. She had to prepare for the culinary management classes she was taking at the New York Restaurant School. She had to stay awake. Mr. Young reassured her. "I'm trying my best not to make friends here," he said. "I don't plan on us being here long." Waiting and Working Time, the family came to realize, has a way of stretching and constricting in a safe house. Familiar faces disappeared, and were quickly replaced by new ones. The stairwell swelled with the sounds of children one week, but was eerily silent the next. The days of summer and autumn bled into winter, and still on the top floor, Darien Young played and his parents planned. Roger Young wearied of walking to use the pay phone and got a cellphone. He felt depressed, so that some days he couldn't get up to answer the door when neighbors knocked. She understood. She had sent out reams of applications for public housing, but had heard nothing. "We've gotten used to calling it home and wanting to be here," she said. "But at night Roger and I sit and talk, and we always come back to the same thought: we need a real home. This isn't ours." As soon as Darien's levels were normal, in late October, they were asked to leave. The weekly clinic visits, vitamins and a lead-free environment had done its job. His appetite and regular sleep habits had returned. His parents were ecstatic. Doctors warned them, however, that any lasting damage would not be known until he started school. Evaluations would then gauge whether he could keep up with his classmates. They got a real estate broker and started apartment-hunting near Montefiore. They looked at nine places, asking first about lead and receiving surprised glances. Then the car broke down. She got the $1,300 bill and cried. Ms. Montalvo asked if they wanted to stay at the safe house one more month. They did. Looking Ahead On Dec. 1, Darien Young's family again stuffed everything they owned into plastic bags and boxes. No one gave them a farewell party, and no volunteers carried bundles into the waiting car downstairs. There were moments during their stay when Ms. La Santa regretted not being more neighborly. But in their faces, she recognized too well her own desperation. Since then, she has driven by the red house with green doors several times. She has never stopped. The family's new apartment is on the ground floor of a soaring building on Wilson Avenue in Eastchester Heights. The two-bedroom apartment is $875 a month. She has a signed statement from the landlord, saying the place is lead free. Her refrigerator-magnet lawyer also has a copy. Last week, she sat on her blue-gray sectional sofa, smoking. Mr. Young wrestled on the floor with their new Rottweiler puppy, Tigger. Darien padded into the room on a white tricycle. "This is what I know," she said. "I want to finish school and get my bachelor's degree. I want to hang onto this place until we can afford to buy a house, maybe in New Jersey. I want my boys to finish the school year there because they're in honor roll and doing really good. I'm happy Darien's levels are down, and I have to believe he will grow up and be successful. I need to believe he will be smart." Darien walked up to her on his bike. She gently put his feet on the pedals. He shook his feet off and walked away. "We got him that bike last year, but he can't pedal it," she said. "He says he can't, but we know he can. See, it's those simple things that worry us. There's so much we still don't know." 

Article in New York Times - January 13, 2002 (original at )

Last changed: July 14, 2006