Blog

Former Santa Elf Faces Homelessness

Posted on May 23, 2019 by Alice Kenny  |  Share

Catholic Charities NY Steps In


Lisa

For years Lisa, a former elf in Macy’s Santa Land; in an earlier life a person-sized Bubba Gump shrimp barking “come on guys and try our food”, and, earlier still, a walking Pop Tart, cheered pedestrians throughout New York City’s Times Square.  Her work as a costumed-character-for-hire work was as close as she could get to her dream of acting on Broadway. And, it seems now, as close as this now 46-year-old woman will ever get. Surprise attacks from a sudden brain tumor, rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease eat away at her body and mind.  They stole her work, her sense of self and ultimately left her homeless.  Fortunately, she found her way to Catholic Charities NY.

By Alice Kenny

Tiny, still elflike, and bedecked with peace buttons pinned to her black cap, Lisa tries to focus on the good days, the years she met actors while bartending at Schubert Theatre, and how close she felt then to her goal.   Her background gave her no preparation for life in a women’s shelter.

“The women scared the heck out of me,” she says.  They screamed, scratched and poured urine on her bed.

“It was worse than having the illness,” Lisa says

Terrified, she would throw up on the subway platform every time she had to return to the shelter at night. 

This was a low point, she says, from a long list of lows 

In January 2012 Lisa woke up, she says, but could not move.  Her eyes were filled with red dots. Blood gushed from her bottom.  Doctors diagnosed her with hypertensive pseudo cerebri, a brain tumor that caused her body to build up brain fluid that pushed against her optic nerve.  It made her hear non-existent noises and impaired her vision.  Next came Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory bowel disorder that inflamed her digestive tract that caused severe diarrhea and left her exhausted and doubled over in abdominal pain.  Then, on its heels, came a diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease that caused her body's immune system attack her own joints.

She worked for two more years, ignoring her doctors’ advice.  She caught pneumonia.  And she kept working.  She popped 35 prescribed pills a day.  And she kept working. 

Finally, she had to give up 

She lost her apartment and moved into a rented room.  Then her landlord raised her rent.  At that point, she says, it seems like she lost it all.  She moved into a city a shelter, living there for one year and four months and counting every day. 

“I want to be the person I used to be,” she says, struggling to smile between tears. “I want to work.”

A Miracle almost Missed

Then, last year when her phone rang her life looked like it might once again take a turn for the better. She received the news she was praying for.  New York City began issuing section 8 vouchers again, the worker on the other end of the line told her, a voucher program that helps cover the rent for a small percentage of low-income New Yorkers.  And she would be among that small percentage.  If Lisa could come up with the first month’s rent – just $228 – plus the security deposit, a studio apartment on Lenox Avenue in Harlem would be hers.

But Lisa survived, and barely, on just $772 in monthly Social Security disability checks.  She had no savings.  She was broke. 

Catholic Charities Intervenes

This is when staff from Catholic Charities NY’s HomeBase eviction prevention program stepped in.   Alisa Texeira, Catholic Charities NY’s assistant director of its Preserving Housing program, successfully advocated with the city’s Human Resources Administration to get a “one-shot-deal” to cover Lisa security deposit and first month’s rent.

Catholic Charities NY’s Preserving Housing program works with individuals and families to create comprehensive plans that respond to the immanent emergency and help avoid future crises. 

Finally, after four years stuck in purgatory, Lisa was able to restart her life.  She told Ms. Texeira she did not mind sleeping on her lawn chair, the only furniture she had.  At least she once again had her own home.   

So Catholic Charities gave her a bed, a dresser, a seven-piece comforter set, a towel set, a 12-piece cookware set, and a five-tier shelf and free-standing closet.  When Thanksgiving came, Catholic Charities gave her a turkey plus all the trimmings to celebrate her own personal Thanksgiving.  For Christmas, they gave her warm coats, clothes and blankets. 

Now slowly, despite her chronic illnesses, Lisa has begun to heal.

 “I have this beautiful person, Ms. Texeira, and this beautiful organization on my side,” Lisa says, giving Ms. Texiera a hug.  “I’m not alone anymore.”