Parks Workers Help Homeless Sisters Get Safe Shelter

CARE and PERSISTENCE: Urban Park Ranger Odelia Lee of Local 983 and Capt. Cynthia Thompson of SSEU Local 371 helped two sisters who were homeless for 12 years get temporary housing and services.

By DIANE S. WILLIAMS

Two Burmese sisters, who were homeless in New York City for over 12 years, are now in temporary housing thanks to the care and persistence of two Parks Department workers. 

Parks Enforcement Officer Odelia Lee of Local 983 and Captain Cynthia Thompson of SSEU Local 371 worked together to successfully relocate the two sisters to a Lower East Side hotel at the end of March.

But getting the two women to accept help and city services was a journey that spanned far beyond the eight miles separating the Upper West Side’s Verdi Square Park from the Lower East Side.  

Lee and Thompson were assigned to assist and develop a rapport with these homeless sisters in February. They usually work in Queens parks but traveled to Manhattan for this special assignment.

“It took a lot of patience and persistence over the two months. We visited them two or three times a week to win them over,” said Thompson, a 29-year Parks Dept. veteran. 

Lee said, “We both even visited them on our day off. It wasn’t easy for us to convince them to trust us. We had to build a relationship with them. They survived for so many years in the subways and on the streets. They were guarded and very protective of each other.”

The elderly sisters made Verdi Square Park their home after the MTA shuttered the subways in May 2020, as part of its pandemic response. For the first time ever, the New York City Transit system halted 24-hour service for deep cleaning to prevent the spread of the deadly COVID-19 virus. The decision stranded straphangers who rely on overnight train service. It also forced aboveground many homeless people who were living in the labyrinth of underground tunnels and train stations.

The Parks workers said the sisters’ first language is Burmese and they spoke some English. Even with the language barrier, they were able to develop a good connection. Over a few weeks, the sisters were more at ease.

The Parks workers noticed one of the sisters had difficulty walking. With the help of BRC, the Bowery Residents Committee, a nonprofit that provides services for homeless people, they got her the medical attention she needed. They also offered meals and shelter with each visit, but the sisters refused and chose to travel to Chinatown for familiar foods.

“They stuck together, adamantly refusing to go into a homeless shelter or to separate. We didn’t give up. We made more visits and even showed them photos of the hotel they would get to live in,” said Thompson.

Lee added, “We worked with the Department of Homeless Services and BRC to obtain temporary housing closer to Chinatown where they were more comfortable. They have friends there and frequent a few places for food and services.”

Finally, on March 31, the homeless sisters of Verdi Park accepted help from Thompson and agreed to move into the downtown hotel. To accommodate the sisters, DHS kept them together. They now share a room on the Lower East Side.  

The women thanked the Parks workers for helping them get back on their feet.

“I can’t put into words how good it feels to be able to make a difference in these women’s lives,” said Lee.  

“We commend these Parks employees who went above and beyond. We are very proud of all their hard work and persistence. They never gave up on the sisters and helped them rebuild their lives,” said Local 983 President Joe Puleo. 

“These members used their training, compassion and people skills to aid two people who deeply distrusted the system. They saw their humanity and did what they could to help provide services that will keep them safe,” said SSEU Local 371 President Anthony Wells.

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