An Anniversary Worth Remembering
By MICHAEL SCHENKLER
Twenty years ago, Avery Mendez, a homeless Queens resident, died of exposure.
Anniversaries are usually uplifting and celebratory. The Trib’s anniversary – this year our 37th – is usually a time for reflection. So Trib editor Brian Rafferty and his staff decided to celebrate our 37th year in print by focusing on those Queens-significant events achieving an anniversary of note, starting with the 350th anniversary of the signing in Queens of first document of religious freedom in America.
But as I looked at the list of anniversaries, it wasn’t the impressive Queens Library’s 100th, or the No. 7 train’s 90th that struck me. The 70th of my alma mater Queens College, or of Kew Gardens Hills where I grew up, or even the very memorable 30th anniversary of the great New York blackout did not stir my feeling like one, seemingly less significant items buried way down on the list: the 20th anniversary of the death of Avery Mendez.
While the name may not resonate for everyone, to me and to those of us here at the Queens Tribune it represents perhaps the most memorable story in our 37 years, as well as a colossal failure on the part of our society.
Twenty years ago, in our Thanksgiving issue, we led on our front page with a lawsuit over the City’s Homeless Shelter Plan. Inside, we featured the seasonal story of “Queens Residents Give Thanks.”
Avery Mendez, a homeless resident of Queens, was used to illustrate both stories. His front-page photo accompanied the Homeless Lawsuit story and also referred the reader to the inside Queens Thanksgiving feature.
Inside we wrote: “Avery Mendez, 70, is one of the borough’s homeless. He has been for five years. Mendez’ fingernails and hands were crusted and filthy. He wore two different shoes and held a styrofoam cup near his crutches, which were propped up against Alexander’s Department store window on Roosevelt Ave.”
“‘I was the victim of a hit and run driver. It left me a cripple,’ said Mendez. But he also admitted to being thankful for what he has. ‘I believe in Christ and trust in the Lord. I don’t know what I’ll do on Thanksgiving, but maybe I’ll go to a shelter or hospital.’ Mendez admitted that if he had a wish to make on Thanksgiving, he would want a decent hot meal and some clean clothes.”
The next week, on the front page of the Tribune in the lead story titled “A Homeless Victim,” we lead with:
“Avery Mendez is dead.
“The 70-year-old homeless Flushing man, who was featured on the cover of last week’s Tribune was picked up by the Emergency Medical Service technicians from the spot he called home, on the street at 40th Road and Main Street, last Friday, with a body temperature 30 degrees below normal. Despite efforts at Booth Memorial Hospital for five hours, Mendez went into cardiac arrest and died at 1:30 p.m.”
As we wrote in the editorial, ‘A Death Touches Us,’ that week: ‘It was one of those rare occasions in which a community newspaper unknowingly gets involved in a story as it is happening. It touched us deeply…The city failed to deal with the problem adequately. Now Mendez is dead. Politics, bureaucracy and community interests considered, how much is a human life worth?”
At the time, the death of Mendez touched the borough, and made the plight of the homeless more tangible.
Since then, little has changed. Mayor Mike Bloomberg has made homelessness in New York City a priority. This year was the fifth of Bloomberg’s annual homeless count, carried out by volunteers and managed by the Mayor’s office. The city has also implemented a number of programs to address the problem.
In spite of the efforts, the New York City Coalition for the Homeless released their 2007 State of the Homeless report, finding that population in homeless shelters had risen by more than 11 percent in the last year. The number of homeless children has increased by nearly 20 percent.
Homelessness in the city, an apparent priority of the administration, is in danger of becoming a silent epidemic once again. As rents steadily increase in the city, and affordable housing remains scarce, it is difficult for the neediest residents of New York City to get back on their feet after they fall.
On that cold November night 20 years ago, the day after his Thanksgiving meal, Avery Mendez succumbed to five years of homelessness.
His death touched us then and still touches us now – 20 years later. He was, and still is, our symbolic victim of our society’s failure to help the least fortunate. For each of the five years before Mendez’ death and for every year since, we have been writing that the homeless make the headlines as the first frost approaches and disappear from thought with each spring.
We failed him. We all continue to fail to deal with the homeless problem adequately.
For us at the Trib, Avery Mendez shall remain our symbol of one of the most shameful failures of our City and our society.
All anniversaries aren’t uplifting, but they are worth remembering.
Column contributor: Matt Hampton
Government Debt At All Levels
By HENRY STERN
In our remarkable nation, state and city, fiscal responsibility can only be expressed in relative terms. The Federal government for years has been the least responsible, breeding a national debt approaching $9 trillion. The debt is rising at $1.87 billion a day.
The United States is a debtor, not a creditor nation, and its balance of payments deficit is increasing.
Although the State of New York is sounder financially than the Federal government, in part because it lacks the authority to print money and to borrow endlessly, it is still close to being a financial basket case, compared to similar jurisdictions. New York State has circumvented Constitutional limitations on state borrowing by setting up more than 700 public authorities, many of which are authorized to sell bonds to the public. Only California has a higher public debt and the Golden State has almost twice as many residents.
The City of New York, now fettered by state and federal legislation and accounting rules, is better off, but only by comparison with the other two levels of government. The city went through a near-death fiscal scare in which bankruptcy papers had been prepared by counsel to be submitted to a Federal court in the morning of Oct. 17, 1975. A mayoral statement had been typed, but not yet issued: “I have been advised by the Comptroller that the City of New York has insufficient cash on hand to meet debt obligations due today. This constitutes default that we have struggled to avoid.” The Times reported that the statement was ready to be released if the teachers’ union (UFT) did not invest $150 million from its pension funds in city securities. It was that close.
The city’s inability to control its own spending had left it increasingly unable to pay its operating expenses out of revenues, so it resorted increasingly to short-term borrowing, not only for capital projects, which was traditional, but for the routine expenses, primarily labor costs. That was legal at the time; it has since been prohibited. Economically insupportable, excessive borrowing was the road to ruin. The workforce had to shrink drastically, and it did with the layoffs of more than 50,000 employees in June 1975. After that, the headcount resumed its upward crawl.
The last several years have been enormously prosperous for the city, reflecting the boom on Wall Street and in real estate. Income and property taxes have brought in more money than anticipated. Mayor Bloomberg has been conservative in handling the surplus, setting aside $2 billion for health benefits to be paid, and buttressing some reserves.
The Independent Budget Office notes the city’s surplus but predicts a decline in growth in future years.
This month the Mayor asked his agencies to make plans for a 1.5 percent reduction this year and 4 percent next year. Although these cuts are not likely to be implemented across the board, it is a good idea to have commissioners and their key staffs prioritize their operations and decide what, if necessary, can most easily be cut.
My most vivid recollection of the budget trimming process came from a morning meeting in the Blue Room, in the second year of the Giuliani administration. First Deputy Mayor Peter Powers presided, explaining that there were some budget cuts that had to be made in all agencies. He said he understood that some commissioners might feel that these cuts would impair the functioning of their agencies, result in substantial lessening of services to the public, or make it difficult to carry out their programs effectively. His tone was sympathetic and understanding of the plight commissioners faced. He said “you may believe in good conscience that you cannot carry out these reductions. If you feel that way, I completely understand. Let’s part friends.”