Octavio Estevez, who is in need of a kidney transplant, but has also been homeless, stood on the steps of City Hall accompanied by elected officials earlier this week to plead his case. PHOTO: Sandra E. Garcia
Christmas came a day early for Octavio Estevez.
Estevez, 54, in the terminal stages of renal disease, is in dire need of a kidney.
For the last week, and long before, Estevez’s life has taken a series of dramatic, and sometimes harrowing, turns.
But this past Sat., Dec. 24th, on “Nochebuena,” or Christmas Eve, Estevez, who’d been living with his family in a Bronx shelter for months, received keys to a new apartment in Washington Heights – keys which may very well save his life.
For the past few months, Estevez has been pleading his case before the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA), hoping to advance on the waiting list for housing he’d been placed on since August.
Estevez suffered a series of strokes in 2006 which kept him from his work as a tailor. Soon, he’d fallen behind on rent, and the father of two and his family were homeless. The Dominican-born U.S. citizen, who moved to the city in 1984, found housing in a Bronx homeless shelter, only to be diagnosed with end-stage renal disease two years ago.
Estevez, who is down to 24% kidney function, needs a transplant to save his life.
But New York Presbyterian in Washington Heights and Mount Sinai Medical Center in the Bronx, local medical institutions at which Estevez might receive a transplant and continued care, could not perform the transplant surgery.
Without a permanent home, the hospitals’ rules prohibit organ transplants for fear that the patients would be exposed to undue risk of infection or other complications that would endanger the patient – and the scarce, valuable resource that is a harvested organ.
“My biggest worry is that I’ll die and my children will wind up in the street,” said Estevez during a press conference with Councilman Rodriguez earlier in the week.
Estevez’s case has been championed in the past week by a bevy of local elected officials, including New York City Councilmember Ydanis Rodriguez, of northern Manhattan, and New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat, whose district covers northern Manhattan and the Bronx.
On Mon., Dec. 19th, Councilmember Rodriguez and Senator Espaillat were joined by their colleagues from across the city and state, including New York State Assemblymember Guillermo Linares, and New York City Councilmembers Melissa-Mark Viverito, Fernando Cabrera, and Jumaane Williams, who stood with Estevez to ask Mayor Bloomberg’s assistance on the steps of City Hall.
Estevez, who found himself in tears during the press conference, implored, “I don’t want to be a bad person.”
At the press conference, Councilmember Rodriguez held up Estevez’s U.S. passport, reminding all present that Estevez and every member from his family is a U.S. citizen, although the NYCHA had offered to send Estevez back to the Dominican Republic to receive care.
“He is a US citizen, [and] they were trying to send a US citizen back to the Dominican Republic,” said Sen. Espaillat.
Councilman Williams also addressed Mayor Bloomberg directly, “This is Bloomberg’s New York. Is this what you want to be remembered for?”
As the days passed, it seemed everyone had something to say about the Estevez case.
Councilman Rodriguez on Wednesday explained that New Yorkers had been calling into his office on a daily basis, some offering to pay Estevez’s rent for a year, and others even offering a room up for him.
But still no solid word from NYCHA.
At a separate press conference in Washington Heights announcing the passage of the livery cab bill on Thurs., Dec. 22nd, Councilman Rodriguez took the opportunity to press Mayor Bloomberg.
“I just want to ask for a personal Christmas gift. There is a man that needs an apartment in order to receive a transplant. I am just asking personally, if NYCHA can help out,” requested Rodriguez.
Mayor Bloomberg replied, “He’ll have to wait like everyone else,” and moved on with the conference, indicating that he’d do little to personally intercede.
Then on Friday, Yvonne Stennett, executive director of the Community League of The Heights (CLOTH), heeded the call to action, as spurred on by Councilmember Rodriguez and fellow elected officials.
Stennett aided in the creation of the miracle in Washington Heights, as colleague Councilmember Robert Jackson called it.
“We needed to do something,” explained Stennett on Saturday morning as she stood with the Estevez family on Edgecombe Avenue, just in front of the building where they’re to move into.
“We searched our [housing] portfolio, and realized that in this building there was a vacancy, but it had been vacant for seven years. So we needed a crew to fix it up.”
In stepped Sam Gaccione.
Gaccione, of the Great American Construction Company, is co-owner of the building together with CLOTH. HE immediately went to work assembling a team through his construction company, TNS Development Group.
Moreover, for Gaccione, the Estevez family’s plight touched him personally.
“My father had died from kidney failure, and knowing that Mr. Estevez needs a kidney transplant, it really hit home,” said Gaccione.
Gaccione quickly assembled a team to gut and renovate the apartment. The team arrived at the apartment at 8am on Christmas day, 16 hours after receiving approval from the Mayor’s office.
“The city made the ultimate decision to allow Mr. Estevez to move in to this building, along with Yvonne Stennett,” said Gaccione.
In the end, it seems all of Santa’s elves, and then some, went to work for Estevez to assure him a new beginning in the New Year.
“I feel very happy because I know that not only did Santa Clause arrive for Estevez this Christmas but also the Three Kings, all the saints and angels came through for him, this Christmas. This was a true Christmas for this family this year,” said Assemblyman Guillermo Linares as he joined with the family at their new apartment.
Estevez agreed, as he stood surrounded by his family.
“Today is a special Christmas,” he said, “the most important day of my life.”