Avery Mendez, a homeless resident of Queens – yes, a homeless resident of Queens — was used to illustrate both stories. His front-page photo accompanied the Homeless Lawsuit story and also “teased” 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.
According to Mendez, he draws $480 a month government disability pension, but that is not enough to keep him going, he explained.
‘I just got out of Queens General Hospital. I got my head split open because I didn’t want to give up my money.’”
The story was one of sad determination but of reality. It told of the reality of thousands of people who lived similar existences. And although the Alexander’s store has made way for newer retailers, the facades of Main Street retailers continue to separate the haves and the have-nots.
A week after our Thanksgiving issue on Dec 3, 1987, 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.’
On that cold November of 1987, the night after his Thanksgiving meal, Avery Mendez succumbed to five years of homelessness.
His death touched us then and still touches us now. 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.
In that edit in 1987, we asked: “Politics, bureaucracy and community interests considered, what is a human life worth?”
Last week, I exchanged thoughts with one of the two reporters who covered the Mendez story for us back in 1987. Lisa Colangelo, a Queens girl has been at the City Hall bureau of the NY Daily News for the past six years. Lisa broke into the game with us and certainly will always remember the story which won her the statewide New York Press Association Award.
She did too: “I guess the story helped put a face on the plight of the city’s homeless.
Back in the 1980s, there were so many homeless people on the streets too many New Yorkers got used to walking by – or over – them.”
Lisa explained, “I think we could always use some of that compassion for the less fortunate – especially now when we don’t tend to see them as much on the streets. Even though the number of homeless on the streets has dropped - there are more homeless women and children in shelters”
Yes, the holidays have different meaning for all of us.
Last week, we lost another son of Queens to the war in Iraq. Seventeen children of Queens have been taken by that war and their families, neighbors and friends will not share the same holiday that may mark the season for many of us.
Some of us will volunteer our time and go to soup kitchens, children’s hospitals or our charity of choice. Some will find solace in our houses of worship; others in their friends and families.
The holidays are more than gift-giving and joy.
For the borough’s homeless all we can hope for is that the compassion of the holiday spirit will permit an inept government bureaucracy and a politically failing system to find the resources to deal with our least fortunate citizens.
Avery Mendez is dead.
At the Tribune, as long as there are homeless, his memory shall live.