Dear Mr. System…

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September 18, 1998. Sandra Jimenez remembers that day like it was yesterday. That fall afternoon, her two-year-old daughter came home from foster care. From that day on, Jimenez made it her mission to advocate for every parent who’s ever been through even some of what she’s lived–domestic abuse, divorce, homelessness, drugs, jail and losing a child. “You think there’s no way out,” she says. “But everybody has it in them. I am proof.”

Last June, the city Department of Homeless Services (DHS) hired her to bring that message to its clients. As the director of the agency’s new Office of Advocacy, Jimenez will be an ombudsman for the roughly 37,000 people who look to the city for shelter every night. Her office–which she plans to staff up to nine soon, with the help of an annual $398,000 federal grant–aims to help homeless New Yorkers navigate the city’s shelter and public assistance systems, provide checks and balances within the homeless services agency, and make clients’ perspectives central to policy discussions and decisions.

They will do this, says Jimenez, by making routine shelter visits and running a hotline for complaints about everything from cockroaches to problems with public assistance. Her staff will direct immediate issues to the appropriate point people–like caseworkers at the Human Resources Administration or analysts at DHS. “I’m trying to cut through the red tape,” she says, while also transmiting “a real level of urgency” within the agency. “My role is to push and push and push.”

She definitely understands the need to push. At 27, in the midst of a divorce from an abusive husband, she fell deep into a heroin habit. It cost her the job she’d held for 15 years, as a bilingual interpreter and clerk in Bronx Family Court. She and her two youngest children spent a while bouncing from the Emergency Assistance Unit–the first stop for any family looking for shelter–to homeless shelters and hotels, back to their apartment and then all over again.

“If we didn’t have food, we would go to the EAU, if we didn’t have lights, we would go to the EAU,” she says. “We used it as a haven. Even though I knew we would sleep on the floor, it was better than where I was, being at risk of losing my kids.”

In 1996, an attempt to feed her drug habit by selling two $10 bags of heroin landed her in jail for three weeks. She lost her infant Martha, the youngest of eight, to foster care. That, she says, “was the wake up call I needed to get back on track.” She checked herself into rehab, and 18 months later, with a job as an administrative assistant and a new apartment in the Bronx, she reunited her family.

Since then, Jimenez has made it her mission to mentor struggling parents and advocate for family reunification. She started at St. Christopher’s Inc., the foster agency that watched over her own daughter for nearly two years. After a brief stint as a $25-a-day parent advocate, St. Christopher’s brought Jimenez on staff to assist executives with lobbying and policy work.

In that job, she succeeded in making parents’ perspectives part of child welfare policy. “She has a real ability to articulate parents’ needs in a more global sense,” says Louis Medina, the agency’s executive director. “She kept people honest, and held the people responsible for delivering services accountable.”

The next several months will test her ability to do that at DHS.

Jimenez first met Homeless Services Commissioner Linda Gibbs while performing in The Cycle, a play she and other St. Christopher’s parents wrote to illustrate the ins and outs of losing a child to foster care or adoption. Then a deputy commissioner at the Administration for Children’s Services (ACS), Gibbs established the ACS parent advisory board, which Jimenez now co-chairs, in 2000.

While child welfare advocates appreciate that parents now have a seat at the table, some wonder how much teeth the board really has. “These initiatives for parents are a good thing, but if you’re not making fiscal and policy decisions, then you’re not really moving in the right direction,” says Mike Arsham, director of the Child Welfare Organizing Project and a member of the board.

But Jimenez, who sees the ACS board as a model for her new office, says she’s confident she will be able to affect homeless policy. She has already begun making recommendations in intraagency meetings for improving the EAU, Section 8 and other homeless services. To improve the intake packet, intended to make it easier for families to get through the EAU, she’s made sure translations in at least Spanish are complete. She is also helping draft a strategy for ensuring that landlords in scattered site apartments provide homeless tenants with the services the city requires.

But her biggest test may be yet to come. At press time, the city was awaiting court approval to break up homeless families in the shelter system who have rejected an apartment the city says is adequate, removing them from the shelter system for 30 days at a time and putting their children in foster care. Though it seems to run counter to everything she stands for, so far she is taking a wait-and-see approach: “Let’s see what happens in a few months,” she says.

For now, she’s the closest she’s ever been to the place she’s talked about for years in her performances of The Cycle: “I will climb without ceasing until I am sitting right next to you, Mr. System,” she recites in the play, “and I too will make the law that helps my community.”