Samy Nemir-Olivares


“We think we are in a nightmare that we can’t wake up from,” Dora, 35, told me while sheltering with her family at a hotel provided by the Red Cross the weekend after a catastrophic fire had changed their lives, again.

The 10 members of the Heredia-Reyes family were all sitting down at the table for dinner when one of the children came running down announcing the fire they just saw from their window. The family was in shock. The grandmother was paralyzed and had to be carried out. They fled and crossed the street without coats or shoes.

It was the second fire the family had lived through in less than two months. A corner pizzeria, Danny’s Pizza, offered them dinner and shelter. From there, they waited hours for firefighters to rescue their pets: two cats, a bird, and a fish.

Dora was one of the around 47 people who, on Jan. 15, lost their homes after a horrific fire left families in the street and destroyed over 30 apartments. The incident required over 200 firefighters and several hours to contain, leaving four injured.

Many of the families lost most of their lifelong belongings in just a few hours, but fortunately everyone survived.

The story of the Heredia-Reyes family is heartbreaking and shackles anyone’s soul reflecting on the fragility of life, Samy Nemir-Olivares writes.

Some had extended families to turn to for the night, but others were sent to hotels and relied on the Red Cross for support. Four families were placed in a hotel in North Brooklyn. All of them had underage children and seniors packed into rooms with barely any belongings and one constant question perturbing their minds: what next?

The story of Heredia-Reyes family

The story of the Heredia-Reyes family is heartbreaking and shackles anyone’s soul reflecting on the fragility of life. In November, a strong gas leak that came from a restaurant in their previous building on Graham Avenue had forced the family to run out of the building in fear of an explosion.

They were not new to disasters, though. Their grandmother had founded a philanthropy organization in the 90s called the Asociacion Morelense Unidos al Rescate (AMUAR) and it was from there that they helped dozens, if not hundreds, of people in the United States and Guatemala with emergency supplies, paid for medical bills, and even bought an ambulance. Their devotion to the community, based on their Christian faith, extended all throughout 2020. They helped many families with food and even donated their stimulus checks.

The family is very spiritual and Dora’s husband had felt that something else was about to happen. A few weeks later, on Dec. 6, their building was set on fire and, for the second time, the family had to flee, but this time, they lost almost everything they owned. Just a few things were rescued-their cats, their bird, the fish, and a Christmas tree, which they took, entirely decorated, to their new apartment. One of the firefighters had come out with the fishbowl empty but the fish had miraculously stayed alive, in a corner where a few drops of water remained. Another important item was rescued, a big box of toys and clothing they were going to send to their home country, Guatemala.

“We have seen similar things, but one never knows when it will happen to you.” said the matriarch, grandmother Mrs. Cardona, 62 years-old. Thanks to the help of a local school PS 196 and their neighbors, the family was able to skip the city’s help and move to another apartment with a family member, at 242 Montrose Avenue. There, the family of 10 slept in the same room, still traumatized by the fire. Mrs. Cardona started having horrible nightmares. One night, the matriarch of the family dreamed that this new apartment was on fire, and in the dream she couldn’t escape through the windows. Dora’s husband felt, again, that more was about to come. While driving he saw a big black cloud in the sky and felt an uncomfortable hunch.

But they got back on their feet and tried to go back to “normalcy” as quick as possible and even decorated their new apartment full on Christmas.

“They are like our babies,” the.Heredia-Reyes family said. 

A few days later, there was a fire at the building next door. It has been one week since they paid their second monthly rent for their new apartment, and they were still living off of donated supplies. They had lost everything all over again and just a few remarkable items had survived: the cats, the bird and, again, the fish. After four hours, a firefighter came out with one of the cats, took a picture of it, and handed it to them after making the sign of the cross to the cat and told the family: “this was a miracle.” It was two days before the cat’s one year birthday, The next day, at a hotel shelter they celebrated the cat’s birthday with a cake in gratitude and relief from all they have lived together. Her name was Traviesa (mischievous/naughty) but Dora’s husband calls her “Sky,” the name of previous cat, so they decided to use both names. Which I realize now  translates into something like “Celestial playfulness.”

“They are like our babies,” they said.

At a hotel shelter, they celebrated the cat’s birthday with a cake in gratitude.

Another item was also saved twice: the family table they have had for over 20 years and where they were having dinner that very night. After the incident, they visited the building and had curiously turned it upside down. It was there there they found two eyes and the shape of a face engraved on the wood and, for them, it represented the face of Jesus Christ, and a sign that they were not alone.

With tears in their eyes but a visibly unbreakable soul, the Heredia-Reyes family said they didn’t want people to feel pity for them. This was something all the families involved in the fire shared. They were all hard workers who wanted to overcome these circumstances on their own, although they realized how difficult that might be.

“We want people to have faith. God has saved us many times, and now we are the ones in need of support. Despite the challenges we are facing, God hasn’t abandoned us. We see it as a challenge that has tested our faith, but as the scriptures say, although one’s faith might be as small as a mustard seed, what matters is to have it,” they told me.

From my childhood teachings I know that the passage comes from Matthew 17:20, and it ends with saying, “and nothing will be impossible to you.” and that’s precisely what this family has mastered for their destiny. They clearly saw it as a divine intervention. And frankly, so did I. I felt the immense presence of a larger meaning coming from this family and lef the hotel convinced of the importance of feeling grateful for being alive.

A fear of ‘Shelter’

All of the families were devastated. Another family, Sierra, had nowhere to go and the single mother feared for her 4-year-old. A fourth family, another single mother with a nine-year-old and two teenagers, was worried about her child missing out on school. One of the families felt deeply hurt when they saw the landlord of the building they had been living in for 17 years and didn’t say a word to them or approach them, not to even ask them how they were.

Maria Heredia told me that the moments of uncertainty that followed the fire were “horrible, horrible, what we are going through.”

The offices of Council Member Reynoso and State Senator Salazar and Assemblywoman Davila’s office had come in for advice and support. But, the families were terrified of going to a shelter. The horrific stories they have heard, the fear for their children and for the well-being of seniors, to the fear of Covid-19, or ending up trapped in the shelter system for months or years, kept these families awake for days. They were cornered between two harsh realities:, finding an apartment for the next few hours or going into a shelter without knowing what would happen.

But these days family shelters are not always what people think of when they traditionally think of  “shelters.” Depending on availability, a city shelter can now mean decent, safe, independent apartments and placed where they could qualify for benefits, like housing vouchers and on-site crisis support from social workers, however those is not guaranteed. Nonetheless, for many of them the risk was too high and the fear still too paralyzing.

It was Sunday when we had talked, and no one from the New York City’s Housing and Preservation Department had communicated with them. In fact, no city officials had been in contact with them at all.. The trauma they had been through and the fact that the families were mostly Spanish speakers had complicated the situation. The latest fire had happened on a Friday and the hotel stay happened during the long Martin Luther King’ day weekend. They had until 11 a.m. on Tuesday to evacuate the hotel and, after three days, they still had no idea how to go to a shelter or where to go. One of the families were told around 9 a.m., when most city agencies haven’t opened, that they had to check out at 11 a.m. They panicked and asked the Heredia family for support and they moved all their remaining belongings into Heredia’s already packed room. Maria Heredia says that that moment of uncertainty was “Horrible, horrible what we are going through.” for both families.

The offices of some local elected officials were already making calls and had convinced the Red Cross to push their stay until Friday and give them more time to figure out their next move. They were able to extend their time and those next days turned out to be crucial for them to find where they were gonna move next.

Another building was also evacuated and these families were sent into another hotel in Sunset Park, described as “less than optimal” and including a lot of roaches, to the point that family members sent them money so they could move out. Fortunately, the management company of this building is relocating all of its tenants to another building in the neighborhood, as one of them told me. I learned about the existence of these families and their situation days later and still I don’t know their new location.

Community Solidarity

Nothing measures the greatness of a community than how it responds to a crisis. In this case, North Brooklyn has a soul of gigantic proportions. Fires in North Brooklyn are not a novelty. Since the Bushwick blackout in 1997 and the decades-long ties of solidarity, the local show of support represents something about the innate fabric of our community. Despite the tragic negligence of 2020, a surge of organized mutual aid networks have proven to serve as lifesaving channels for many of our neighbors in need.

Four fundraising GoFundme pages were set up to help each of the four families and some of them even reached their goals within days. Right after the fire, neighbors from other buildings came out and offered the victims coats and shoes. People in Citizen App started communicating, and that’s actually how I was notified me about it. Right after the families were sheltered in a hotel, the office of Assemblywoman Maritza Davila were able to track them down quickly and we were able to coordinate a response.

North Brooklyn Mutual Aid and Bushwick Ayuda Mutua immediately provided bags of clothing, shoes, PPE, hygiene products and entire groceries for all the families. “Anything they need,” said Kevin LaCherra, from NBK Mutual Aid, and they were able to even get a tablet so one of the children could start attending school through remote learning. Maria from Mil Mundos through Bushwick Ayuda Mutua separated sets of clothing tailored to each person’s sizes. Dozens of people have reached out to donate and support and La Nueva Esperanza offered to gather the supplies on an ongoing basis. The Heredia family has a child in PS 196, and one of the teachers immediately mobilized the entire school and gathered food, money, and other supplies to help the family. One of their employers, the Bushwick-based company Amika, organized a fundraising for the family, allowing them to take paid-time off and their boss personally brought them food.

North Brooklyn came together. I feel incredibly grateful for the level of solidarity our community has consistently shown.

Despite all these gestures of solidarity, one question remained for them: housing.

The housing crisis and the failure of the NYC shelter system

One thing that emerges as a failure is our housing and shelter system. While New York is lucky to be one of the few states where “shelter” is guaranteed to everyone under the law, the story, in practice, is different. From deplorable conditions to traumatic ones, the long stays people have to endure in shelters have proven so pervasive that many families prefer to skip the help and find housing on their own during the most difficult times of their lives.

On the other hand, these experiences revealed the multiple gaps in the response to emergency disasters like this. While the resources are out there, and many, there is a lack of coordination and human sensitivity that could greatly improve.

There needs to be better coordination between the Red Cross and government agencies, community organizations and groups. There must be social workers and government employees on call or on duty every night and on weekends to respond to New Yorkers struggling through the ongoing housing crisis. The families that are forced to opt-out of the shelter system, are left on their own and at the mercy of charity and supportive neighbors, oftentimes without any connection whatsoever and no record of their contact information. In fact there were other families in some of these buildings that went on without the support of the Red Cross and, technically, we can’t track them down. I can’t only wonder if smaller incidents go unnoticed, if there are  fires and other disasters that don’t make the news, of families that might not even get support from the Red Cross or homeless system and how our government and community can better support that. (If you have any suggestions, ideas, please email me.)

We can do better. In New York City, there are over 10,000 families and 18,000 children without a home, and there are over 15,000 vacant apartments and 4,100 condominiums empty in Manhattan alone. All enough to house everyone in safe, stable housing.

Yet the city spends an average $6,000 per month to provide shelter to families with children and almost $4,000 for single adults, while for a fraction or half of that funding, we can permanently and safely house everyone. We can house the unhoused, and eradicate homelessness once and for all.

It makes sense economically and also morally. What kind of society do we want to be? One where apartments stay empty for years while children struggle to find a place to live or one where all residents feel safe and sheltered and so they are able to thrive?

The city and state have a lot to learn from mutual aid groups, community based organizations, and nonprofits in the way they responded to Covid-19 crisis, often in the absence of federal and government support. The speed, efficiency, and humane response to human needs has been  admirable and worthy of thorough examination. At the end of the day, we shouldn’t rely on private citizens who are also struggling to respond to those grave needs. But that’s how our communities have always known to respond, through solidarity.

You can still donate directly to the GoFundMes of each of the four families: Rodriguez familyHeredia-Reyes familyHernandez, Sierra family and the Reyes family. If you have any clothing, home appliances or other supplies to donate, drop them off items at La Nueva Esperanza at 213 Johnson Ave in East Williamsburg on Monday, Thursday and Fridays from 9am – 5 p.m.

The families are also in need of furniture (sofa, beds, shelves, tables, etc), if you have please email [email protected], where you can also send any leads of rooms of 1-3 bedrooms for families that are still looking for stable housing.

Samy Nemir Olivares is a writer, organizer and is currently District Leader in  Assembly District 53, which represents parts of Bushwick, East Williamsburg, and Williamsburg. Samy is also the co-founder of Bushwick Ayuda Mutua and a member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 4 and the Bushwick and Community Education Council, CEC 32. You can reach him at: [email protected].

Photos courtesy of Samy Nemir Olivares.

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