Ramona Ferreyra

Adi Talwar

Ramona Ferreyra in front of her grandmother’s apartment building located in New York City Housing Authority’s Mitchel Houses in the South Bronx. Ferreyra is holding a portrait of Luciano Mercado and her grandmother. Her grandmother’s neighbor, Mercadoo (73) died in mid April from COVID-19.

When Luciano Mercado, 72, woke up in his NYCHA apartment in the middle of the night and was having trouble breathing, he knocked on his neighbor’s door. Mercado, whose loved ones call him Louis, had been sick with what he thought was a cold for a few days, accompanied by stomach problems. The symptoms receded, and he hoped the worst was over.

His neighbor, Ramona Ferreyra, was worried. She had been supplying the seniors in the building with masks, fearing that it was taking NYCHA too long. She knew Mr. Mercado would sometimes walk downstairs to feed pigeons outside, exposing himself unnecessarily. As one of the younger seniors in his senior specific building in Mitchel Houses in the Bronx, he was also making grocery runs for other seniors and helping people out.

And she had noticed the senior building where she and Mr. Mercado lived, where she was isolating with her grandmother, had been continually dirty. She had even spotted a syringe and blood on a staircase landing, which she says NYCHA two and a half weeks to clean, although the housing authority disputes this.

Ferreyra called an ambulance that night and took Mr. Mercado to Lincoln Hospital. Within a day, Mr. Mercado was intubated. A few days later, just as Mr. Mercado’s niece was preparing to have him moved to what she believed was a better hospital, Mercado passed away from COVID 19.

“This man was strong, even at his age,” Ms.Lopez says of her uncle, “and this coronavirus just took him like the wind.”

Mr. Mercado’s death illustrates the vulnerability of seniors in the city’s public housing to COVID 19. The majority are Black and Latino, the most hard-hit by COVID-19. About 20 percent of the NYCHA population are 62 or over. Many have co-morbidities and underlying health issues. According to data released by the Department of Health on May 18, there were 1,241 deaths among NYCHA residents from COVID-19.

NYCHA seniors have suffered from administrative failures: Residents say NYCHA took too long to deliver masks and PPE, which Mitchel Houses residents told City Limits they only started receiving via mail in early May. Cleaning is now being done in earnest, residents say, but delays in basic maintenance have been the norm for years.

Organizing NYCHA seniors

NYCHA has senior specific housing, like the senior building in Mitchel Houses, which includes a senior center and, in theory, greater accessibility. But many more NYCHA seniors don’t live in senior housing, which is often reserved for more vulnerable seniors with more health risks.

Mr. Mercado, for instance, lived in private housing 10 years ago. But in 2011, he had a grand seizure that put him in the ICU. He had to regain the ability to read, write, walk, talk and eat in rehab afterward. This is how he qualified for Mitchel Houses’ senior housing building, family says.

Ramona Ferreyra, Mercado’s neighbor, estimates that about three people per building have died in the 10 resident buildings that comprise Mitchel Houses. DOHMH’s data, however, shows 10 residents of Mitchel Houses died from COVID 19 since March 1.

Ferreyra is 39—too young for senior housing—but she has been isolating with her grandmother, whom she helps care for. She’s also been organizing seniors in her grandmother’s building and meeting with NYCHA officials to advocate for better conditions since 2018. She has partnered with Community Voices Heard, a Harlem-based non-profit, to help advocate for fixes to the building including trash pickup, cleaning, fixing broken elevators and buying rat traps.

Ferreyra began organizing with the seniors when she noticed trash pickup was infrequent. She began taking photos to document the problem daily when she took her dog for a walk.

“I would want people to see what we have to see every afternoon,” Ferreyra says.

After eight months of advocacy, her local City Councilmember, Diana Ayala, was able to push NYCHA for more frequent trash pickup. Seniors who had come to her complaining of trash saw the difference her advocacy had made and asked her how they could fix other problems, including infrequent repairs, broken elevators and rats.

Ferreyra, working with another organizer, got an $1,800 grant from Citizens’ Committee for New York City to help their advocacy. To bring attention to the cause, she and the seniors put together a calendar, with a different Mitchel Houses senior appearing every month. It was offered as a reward in a GoFundMe she set up to crowdfund rat traps in the building. She photographed all the seniors and did interviews with them for the calendar. Louis Mercado appeared in the calendar as Mr. September.

“I wanted them to know who these people were,” Ferreyra says of the intent of the calendar.

According to Mitchel Houses tenant association president Pamela Smith, many seniors have been overly cautious since the pandemic began, never leaving their apartments and scared to answer the door for anyone.. Others avoid social distancing guidelines, go for walks, and refuse to wear masks, Ferreyra says.

“There aren’t any good words to say for what we’re going through,” Smith says.

Lack of communication

One thing Ferreyra noticed throughout her organizing for NYCHA is that the housing authority’s chosen methods of communication were just not reaching seniors, something that continued when the COVID outbreak happened.

“They haven’t really taken into consideration how their constituents get information Ferreyra says.

NYCHA’s communication has leaned toward e-mails and phone calls, but very few residents have e-mail accounts that they check, Ferreyra says. Those with phones may change numbers frequently. She says at first there wasn’t even any flyering in the building, and when it appeared, it was only English, even though many residents only speak Spanish.

Reached for comment, a NYCHA spokesperson said, “Resident communications are translated into NYCHA’s five covered languages: English Spanish, Tradition Chinese, Standard Chinese, and Russian. We have also partnered with an outside Language Services vendor to translate notices into eight additional languages including: Arabic, French, Bengali, Haitian Creole, Korean, Urdu, Yiddish, Polish.” 

NYCHA’s communication is important, because many seniors are slow to take cues on how to deal with the virus. Mr. Mercado, his niece says, was only educated up to the 8th grade, and would sometimes overly rely on folk wisdom in lieu of official information. When she told him that he might have the virus, Lopez says, her Dominican Republic-born uncle that he couldn’t get the virus because of his diet of plantains.

Governor Cuomo announced in late April that all NYCHA residents would get access to masks and hand sanitizer. It took until May for NYCHA to send masks to Mitchel Houses, and some seniors were still not wearing them as of May 7, residents said. While most are still inside, some leave the building, taking public transportation. Mr. Mercado, who at 72 was one of the younger residents of the building, was making grocery runs for other seniors in the building, his niece said.

“Some of them immediately shut down and said we’re not going anywhere,” Ferreyra says of seniors in the building. “But we still have some that are playing dominos together.”

And the public information about the virus, which urged only the most sick to avoid the hospital, is out of step with The Bronx, where health disparities could lead to quick deterioration. When Ferreyra called a city helpline about her neighbor Mr. Mercado, she was told at first to keep him away from the hospital until he had a fever. He might not have COVID, she was told, and bringing him in could make him sicker.

Ferreyra believes that because of Mr. Mercado’s other health conditions—he had kidney issues, epilepsy, high blood pressure, and had suffered that debilitating seizure in 2011—it made no sense to wait so long to take him to the hospital. When he was taken in Lincoln, his condition worsened quickly, and he was intubated a day later.

Uneven cleaning

Residents and tenant association members at Mitchel Houses had different experiences with NYCHA’s cleaning work when the pandemic began. Mitchel Houses’ Tenant Association President Pamela Smith told City Limits that it didn’t take too long for NYCHA to begin cleaning the buildings more thoroughly once the pandemic hit. The mayor announced on April 22 that NYCHA would be cleaning its senior facilities five times a week.

“Now every day I see somebody: Someone’s cleaning in the building,” Smith says, including mailboxes, elevators, door-handles and all touchable surfaces.

“My floor is sparkling, except for little cigarette butts,” says Sarah Robinson, 72, who lives on 14th floor of Mitchel Houses senior building. She has complained to a building supervisor that a man has been sleeping in the hallway of her floor and smoking cigarettes, but the situation has yet to be resolved

Others in the Mitchel Houses senior building are less impressed with NYCHA’s cleaning.

“I haven’t seen any evidence of it,” says Ronald McKinnon, 70, who lives on the 16th

floor of the same senior building. “They take their sweet time,” he says. Like other seniors, McKinnon, who says he once lived in a shelter himself before moving to Mitchel Houses, complained about unhoused people living in the building living in the building, including the man sleeping the 14th Floor.

Ferreyra says that in the second week of March, she noticed a syringe and a spot of blood on a staircase landing in the building. The building sometimes has non-residents wandering in and out, multiple seniors say, and some have been spotted using drugs in the stairwell, although Ferreyra did not see who left the syringe.

Ferreyra says she called NYCHA and put in a ticket for them to clean up the blood and dispose of the syringe, noting that the seniors were especially vulnerable to COVID 19. A week later, the syringe was still there, she says. She sent a tweet at NYCHA to get them to show up. She says the syringe and blood were only cleaned a week and a half after that.

When asked about syringe and blood, a NYCHA spokesperson at first told City Limits that no ticket for such a cleaning existed for March in the senior building. When sent a ticket number produced by Ferreyra, NYCHA spokesperson Barbara Brancaccio disputed the two and a half week timeframe and called the question “outrageous.”

Another NYCHA spokesperson, Rochel Leah Goldblatt, said the March 9 work order that Ferreyra submitted was resolved in “less than an hour” and did not involve a syringe.

However, Ferreyra tweeted a photo of the elevator on March 18 to NYCHA to say it was still dirty, NYCHA employees cleaned the elevator and tweeted back at Ferreyra. “We posted a photo of the cleaned and sanitized elevator the day after the resident tweeted about it,” Goldblatt said in an e-mail to City Limits.

Goldblatt laid part of the responsibility for the syringe and feces on residents, saying, “Keeping our developments clean is ultimately a partnership. On behalf of our residents and employees, we ask that all individuals who enter the premises clean up after their pets and themselves, and dispose health-related waste appropriately, to protect the health and safety of our entire community.” 

By the time NYCHA began regularly sanitizing the building in April, Ferreyra says, three seniors in the building had already died.

“I was still having to tell customer service, no one’s cleaned our elevator. No one’s cleaned the floor,” she says. Seniors were still leaving their apartments to get things like groceries. Some, like Mr. Mercado, would leave his apartment to feed pigeons outside. Another neighbor of Ferreyra’s who died, Jose, would go downstairs to feed a cat.

“It was them that I had in mind when I said you have to step up the cleaning,” Ferreyra says.

PPE came late

When tenants of Mitchel Houses’ senior building spoke to City Limits on May 7, masks sent from NYCHA had started arriving in the mail only days prior. Ferreyra took it upon herself to give out face masks. She gave one to her neighbor, Mr. Mercado, although it’s unclear if he was wearing it regularly, friends say. She also gave 2 masks to Mr. McKinnon , who says he has been wearing his consistently.

Linda Duke, 75, serves as treasurer of the Mitchel Houses tenant association. She has lived in Mitchel Houses for 55 years. She is not in the senior-specific building, and says that poor communication and lack of PPE has been a problem throughout the 10 buildings in Mitchel Houses.

“They’re talking about getting residents gloves. When they gonna do it? After everybody die?,” she says. “They’re talking about giving them face masks. When they gonna do it, when everybody die? They talk about giving hand sanitizer. When?,” she asked.

Testing also came late, although it arrived it NYCHA before much of the city. The first tests in NYCHA were rolled out in late April. Speaking on April 24th, Duke lamented that testing had only begun that day, on 141st Street. Some of the seniors who are less mobile found the walk to be a challenge.

In May, Ferreyra said she received a letter stating that her grandmother had violated her lease because Ferreyra was selling masks. She flatly denies selling any masks, and says she has donated 760 masks to Mitchel residents. Several Mitchel residents who spoke to City Limits said Ferreyra had been giving out masks free of charge to residents.

A socially distant goodbye

Mr. Mercado was retired. He worked as a chef, having attended culinary school after coming to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a teenager. The youngest of 13 siblings, he and his sister, Lopez’s mother, were the only two siblings still alive.

He was active in the senior center in his building. As a retired chef, he did a lot of cooking for other seniors. He also frequently ran errands and went food shopping for neighbors. He went on trips with the other seniors and attended their Christmas parties. Lopez, his niece, says he was like a grandfather to her kids – Lopez has had little contact with her own father, and says Mr. Mercado helped raise her.

But when it came time to bury her uncle, like most New Yorkers whose loved ones died during COVID 19 pandemic, she couldn’t grieve in the way that her family would have preferred.

She was told if he was buried, only five people could attend the burial, and all would have to stand six feet apart. Like many New Yorkers in the past two months, she opted to have her uncle cremated instead. She says she hasn’t heard back from the crematorium, which is backed up. She fears that with all the cremations, the ashes she gets back may not even be her uncle’s. The family will try to do a memorial in the fall.

“He was loved by many, many people,” Lopez says of her uncle. “He was a good man.”

The building seemed nice enough when Mr. Mercado moved there, she says. Most of his neighbors were elderly, and the it had a senior center. He did complain, she says, about garbage pickup, that the incinerator would get stuck, the elevator would break, forcing him to take the stairs down 16 floors.

Other organizers within NYCHA have taken note of the conditions. Louis Flores of the group Fight For NYCHA expressed dismay at NYCHA for not releasing a number of residents who have died. DOHMH eventually released that data on May 18.

Ferreyra and her mother have signed on to a rent strike, with the goal of cancelling rent for all NYCHA tenants. The strike is organized by the Upstate Downstate Housing Alliance, an umbrella for grassroots organizations.

“NYCHA has failed to manage the property,” Ferreyra says. She says some of the seniors who have joined the rent strike are doing so out of necessity: They can’t pay because their income has gone down due to COVID. Ferreyra and her grandmother have signed a pledge to participate in the rent strike and plan to save the money for needed repairs.

“It’s taken a long time to get the simple things to be done,” she says.