Vol. 18, No. 24

Dec. 15 - 28,  2005


Finding a Home for The Holidays
Shelter Resident Close to Getting Life Back on Track

Text and Photo by DAVID CROHN

Marta Montilla is just like everyone else — and she takes pride in that. Her goal this holiday season is to have what many people take for granted: a place for her kids to play and unwrap presents. A place called home.

Since March, Montilla and her two daughters have been living at a shelter run by Concourse House, a non-profit organization that takes in homeless women. Run by Fordham Bedford Housing Corporation since its founding in 1991, it also helps those who need work find it and provides childcare and drug counseling.

But Montilla has always been clean, and has a steady job as a care provider for the elderly at a firm in Manhattan. It’s a job she loves and excels at, she says. “If there were more people like me in the world, it would be a better place,” she said. She hopes to be a registered nurse some day.

Her story is fairly typical of the 42 residents of this shelter, but uncharacteristic of the perception many people have of the homeless in New York City, according to executive director Manuela Schaudt.

“A lot of people view homelessness as something that happens with people who are lazy, who don’t work,” Schaudt said. “But [Montilla] is someone who has always just bowed her head and did what was best for her family.”

Last year Montilla, 25, and her daughters, Mimi, 9, and Jenny, 7, were living in Norwood with her grandparents, whom she calls her parents because they raised her. It was small and cramped, but it worked — until her grandmother’s worsening arthritis made it impossible for her to climb the six flights of stairs that led up to the family’s roach-infested apartment.

So she put her grandparents’ needs before her own. She found them a better place to live and helped them move. It was, she said, “The least I could do.”

Doing the right thing required the kind of sacrifice we all pray we’ll never have to make. She became one of the many people in New York City who, despite being driven and hard-working, become homeless through no fault of their own. She is truly, as Schaudt says, a “victim of circumstances,” lost in the shuffle and daily grind of surviving in the poorest borough in one of the toughest cities in the country.

Making the Adjustment

As shelters go, Montilla said, Concourse House has been good to her. It’s clean and safe, unlike the popular conception of housing for the homeless.

“When we first moved in [I thought] I had to prepare my kids for the worst,” Montilla said, “but then their faces lit up. They were like, ‘Mommy, this is not bad at all.’”

But even with the after-school programs her daughters enjoy and the friendly faces that greet her every morning and night, it’s not a place where the girls can have friends over — Concourse House is just a place to stay and has done well in that regard, but “When we come home, we want to be home,” she said.

But Marta Montilla almost has her home for the holidays: she’s seen an apartment she loves (clean, with two bedrooms on 183rd Street), aced an interview with the landlord and is just waiting to sign the lease. According to Concourse House housing specialist, Juanita Fernandez, the city agency Housing Stability Plus will pay 70 percent of her rent; that amount will decrease by 30 percent for the next five years, at which time her nurse’s income will have to pay the whole amount.

Montilla says she is optimistic she and Mimi and Jenny will be in their new place by Christmas. Until then, she says, her plans for the holidays will be to continue doing what she’s always done — going to work, coming home, picking her kids up at school, helping them with their homework, going to bed and then waking up and doing it all over again — but with a sense of renewed hope. And joy in the everyday facts of being alive.

“That’s just life,” she said. “That’s what the real world is all about: working, taking care of yourself, taking care of your kids.”

Concourse House is located at 2751 Grand Concourse. For more information about the organization and its programs, call (718) 584-4400 or go to their Web site, 

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