Tribute to Yvonne McCain in The New York Times Magazine

Yvonne McCain, the lead plaintiff in The Legal Aid Society's homeless families litigation, was featured in a special section of The New York Times Magazine entitled "Lives People Lived" on Sunday, December 25. The article pointed that Ms McCain "never received a cash award, but on any given night, 10,000 families, including 17,000 children, receive emergency shelter from the City of New York as a result of the lawsuit." The New York Times ran an edited out affidavit submitted by Ms McCain, adding that "occasionally an official court document captures someone’s feelings and life story."

The New York Times Magazine
December 25, 2011
The Whole Truth Yvonne McCain, b. 1948
Photograph by Nancy Siesel/The New York Times

Yvonne McCain was the lead plaintiff in a Legal Aid Society lawsuit that took 25 years and more than 50 court orders to resolve. She herself never received a cash award, but on any given night, 10,000 families, including 17,000 children, receive emergency shelter from the City of New York as a result of the lawsuit. Occasionally an official court document captures someone’s feelings and life story, and that’s true of this edited affidavit.

YVONNE McCAIN, et al., Plaintiffs against MICHAEL R. BLOOMBERG, etc., et al., Defendants

YVONNE McCAIN, being duly sworn, deposes and says:

  1. More than 25 years ago, I went to the City for help after my children and I were evicted from our apartment. At first, the City turned us away and said that there was no shelter available. Eventually, the City sent my family to the Martinique Hotel, where we stayed for several years.
  2. The mattresses we were given at the Martinique were ripped, burnt, bug-infested and stained with urine on both sides. The sheets were greasy and stained. The one bureau we were given had no drawers. The rooms were infested with rats and bugs. We had little heat and often had no hot water. For the first week we were there, the smoke detectors rang each night for no reason. After I complained about this, a repairman came and removed the batteries so that the smoke detectors no longer worked at all.
  3. The first night that my children and I were at the Martinique was one of the worst nights of my life. I can still remember how desperate and scared I felt. I spent hours sponging off the mattresses with disinfectant and trying to clean up our rooms. Because the windows in our 11th-floor rooms were jammed open and had no guardrails, I stayed up all night crying, terrified that if I didn’t watch them, one of my children might fall out the window.
  4. There was no place to refrigerate milk for my children. After the first night at the Martinique, I had to put a gallon of milk on the outside of the window ledge to try to keep it cold. I also had to hang our food in a bag attached to a nail in the wall to try to keep vermin from eating the food.
  5. The Legal Aid Society helped me convince the City to give my family shelter after we had been turned away. I wanted to be part of a lawsuit that Legal Aid would bring on behalf of families like mine to make things better for other families who needed shelter and who ended up at the Martinique. I thought maybe we could get clean mattresses and guardrails on the windows so that my children would be safe. I wanted the lawsuit to help homeless families like mine retain some of their dignity; just because you don’t have any place to live doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have dignity. I didn’t want other families to have to go through what we were going through. But I never thought the lawsuit I brought would be so important and help as many people as it has.
  6. A lot has happened in my life in the past 25 years. In 1996, after moving from one place to another to get away from my abusive ex-husband, my children and I were finally able to settle down in an apartment in Staten Island, which we got through the Section 8 program. I went back to school to become a counselor. My children have grown up now, and I am a grandmother. I am also a cancer survivor.
  7. The case I helped start in 1983 has accomplished so much: The courts told the City to stop leaving homeless families to sleep in welfare offices and intake centers and said there had to be standards for the shelters and hotels where families are sent. As a result of the case, the City has not been allowed to turn families away because it says the shelters are already full, as it did when my family asked for help.
  8. Recently, I found out that my cancer has come back. When my lawyer, Steven Banks of the Legal Aid Society, called me in September to discuss the fact that the City had agreed to settle the case, I wasn’t feeling very well. But when he told me that, under the settlement, there would be a permanent right to safe, adequate shelter for families like mine, I was so happy and relieved. This is what we went to court for so many years ago, and I am so glad that I lived to see it happen.
  9. I respectfully request that the Court approve the settlements in the above-captioned cases, so that other families do not have to go through what my children and I did.

Yvonne McCain
7th day of December, 2008