The person on the other end of the line that day last summer could hear how desperate Susan Bowers sounded.
This was her story: Her mother had died a few months earlier, and Ms. Bowers had realized that she could not afford the apartment they shared in Flatbush, Brooklyn. She had found a less expensive studio on Staten Island. But after paying the security deposit and the first month’s rent, and then some leftover expenses as she cleaned out the Brooklyn apartment, as well as her moving expenses, she had run through her savings. Financially, she was at the breaking point.
The voice at the other end said, “I have a number for you.” It was the cellphone number for Devorah Weiss.
Ms. Bowers had called the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, which has an office at the Joan and Alan Bernikow Jewish Community Center of Staten Island. Both are beneficiary agencies of UJA-Federation of New York, one of seven organizations supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases fund. Ms. Weiss is the Metropolitan Council social worker based at the center.
Ms. Bowers called Ms. Weiss, and Ms. Weiss soon arranged a grant of $750 to cover Ms. Bowers’s rent.
Or, as Ms. Bowers put it, “She got me August.”
But that was not all. “She got me a bag full of food to bring back” from the center, Ms. Bowers said. Before she moved to Staten Island, her food stamp allotment had been $189 a month, which was reduced to $69. Then, she said, “they knocked me down to $16 a month.”
Ms. Weiss began working on restoring the monthly payments to the correct level.
Ms. Bowers’s mother had received $1,452 monthly in Social Security disability payments, most of which had gone toward the rent of $1,000 a month for the Flatbush apartment. Ms. Bowers received $828 in disability on her own. The rent on Staten Island was $750 a month. That left less than $100 for little else.
The math was troubling to Ms. Weiss, who later said, “I started working intensively on what she was not getting, what she should have been getting.”
And she listened as Ms. Bowers, 61, explained what had happened.
“It was 12 years ago that I stopped living my own life,” Ms. Bowers said. “My father was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I knew what was ahead.” Her father had been a mailroom supervisor. He had thrown the ceremonial first pitch at a World Series game in 1986, the year the Mets defeated the Boston Red Sox.
She moved into her parents’ apartment to provide full-time care, taking him to his radiation appointments, even helping him dress when the tumor impaired his vision. Her mother, who used a wheelchair because of childhood polio, struggled with mental illness.
“I didn’t care about having any boyfriends,” Ms. Bowers said. “I just focused on my parents.”
Her father died in 2002. She remained with her mother despite the turbulence of their daily life.
“Sometimes she was completely uncontrollable,” she said, adding that her mother had been bipolar and suffered from hallucinations and paranoia. “She’d call the police. ‘I want her arrested, she’s out with her friends.’ The police would say, ‘She’s a grown woman.’ It was embarrassing. Humiliating.”
Ms. Bowers was also trying to cope with her own health problems. She had developed scoliosis, or spinal curvature; an aortic insufficiency; and bursitis in one leg. The effects of a knee injury on the other leg lingered.
At the beginning of 2014, her mother had to be hospitalized. She had pneumonia, diabetes and heart problems, Ms. Bowers said. “I thought she would be around at least a little longer,” she said. “I just wanted to give her some peace and some happiness. I fixed up her room, put carpet down. I brought her home. She died the next day.” Her mother was 85.
Not only could Ms. Bowers not afford to stay in the Brooklyn apartment, but she also had credit card bills to pay off. “All of these things piled up on top of me,” she said. “I was struggling with everyday needs. When the Social Security came in, it was going for the rent.” The Metropolitan Council gave Ms. Bowers a $100 food voucher, and the Jewish Community Center of Staten Island supplied about $60 worth of food monthly from the center’s food pantry. As 2014 ended, Ms. Bowers’s finances were still tight. Ms. Weiss said Ms. Bowers did not have sneakers to use on the treadmill at the community center and could not afford to buy an inexpensive pair.
Her new apartment is in Midland Beach, a neighborhood of one-story bungalows and newer two- and three-story houses that were rebuilt afterHurricane Sandy struck in 2012. (Eight people drowned there after they decided to remain in their homes despite a mandatory evacuation order.)
Ms. Bowers soon discovered the Jewish Community Center’s Center for Lifelong Development, which offers programs like aerobics, foreign languages and history for people over 60. “It’s going to give her a life,” Ms. Weiss said. “It’s going to give her purpose. It’s going to fill the void she has of being isolated for her whole life in Brooklyn. It’s going to rejuvenate her.”
“I’m not a magician,” Ms. Weiss added. “What touched me was giving 100 percent to her mother and 100 to her father. What came to mind was her saying, ‘Don’t worry about me.’ How she might not have food, and yet she’s smiling. Her mother was abusive, and yet she’s grieving. It was her mother, after all.”