Her torso huddled beneath two sweaters and a vest, and a shawl wrapped around her head, Peggy sat in a wheelchair in the emergency room at New York Methodist Hospital complaining that she could not feel her feet.
As Hurricane Sandy rolled into Brooklyn Peggy Ndubisi, a 51-year-old woman from Nigeria, went to the only place she has been able to call home for the past six months—Fort Greene Park.
Since the restrooms were locked in the park, Ndubisi said that the most protective shelter she could find was under the woman’s bathroom overhang.
As she sipped a cup of ice water in the ER on Seventh Ave., Ndubisi said she has been wet and cold since Sunday.
By the time she went to Park Slope Christian Help, the soup kitchen on Fourth Ave. better known as CHIPS on Wednesday she could barely walk. The director of CHIPS, Denise Scaravella has been speaking with Ndubisi for about a week and convinced her to go to the emergency room before she found a bed at the shelter set up for Sandy evacuees at John Jay High School on Seventh Ave.
“She looks like your typical bag lady, but she has a Bachelors’ Degree from Pace University and was a case worker for almost 30 years,” Scaravella said, explaining that Ndubisi was fired from her job two years ago.
Ndubisi, who is a naturalized citizen, moved from Lagos, Nigeria in 1980 as a foreign exchange student. Four years later, she moved into an apartment on Lafayette Ave. in Fort Greene. That apartment she called home for 27 years.
She worked at the Post Graduate Center of Mental Health in Manhattan for 12 years, but was fired one day when the vice president gave her a phone call, telling her never to come back. She also worked at The Family Center, when it was on Reade Street, from 1998 to 2010 but was laid off.
In 2007 she went to Lehman College in the Bronx for social work. At the height of her career, she was making $70,000.
But in 2011, she began to have a conflict with her landlord who wanted her to vacate the apartment. She got a lawyer, but one day she came home from working the midnight shift as a caseworker and saw her apartment on fire.
“I came home to see my house in flames,” Ndubisi said. “I lost everything.”
Three days later, when she went to get her belongings and talk to the landlord, she found that the landlord had locked up her apartment and she was never able to get back inside.
From there, she bounced around from shelter to shelter in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens for six months until someone stole her identification, she said, prohibiting her from entering another one.
After not being able to find a bed, she took to the streets and set up her home in Fort Greene Park. She would stay there for six months, outside of the woman’s bathroom with her shopping cart.
“During the hurricane, it was horrible. I was by myself under the overhang,” she said. “I just sat there wet and freezing cold.”
When Scaravella met her at CHIPS, they got to talking and they took to each other.
“It’s one sad, sad story after the other for her, but she’s not angry, she’s not crazy and she’s not hallucinating,” Scaravella said, explaining that she is now helping her figure out her finances. “She’s just not able to connect the dots and just needs a little bit of help to get back on her feet.”
Since she worked and contributed to Social Security for nearly three decades and has a retirement fund and a life insurance policy, Ndubisi has racked up $150,000 in retirement. For now, Ndubisi wants to get a couple thousand dollars to help her get back on her feet and collect Social Security Disability.
But, with no valid address she cannot get a disbursement.
Scaravella said she is helping her to solidify a new address and by Nov. 12 she’ll hopefully be able to get some money.
“She even has a life insurance policy, she is totally legitimate but has just been hit hard. This was a woman who was totally financially responsible, took care of her body and mind and now this is her situation,” Scaravella said. “It is the most devastating story I have seen.”
Ndubisi said once she gets her money together, she will get an apartment, a job and then go back to school to get a Master’s degree.
But for now, Ndubisi said, she needs to rest and figure out what is wrong with her feet. As a nurse came to take down her information at New York Methodist Hospital, she seemed to be worn by weather, and life.
“I just want to get my life back together,” Ndubisi said, while her eyes filled with tears. “But right now, I’m just tired.”
If you want to help Peggy Ndubisi, e-mail Denise Scaravella, the director of CHIPS: DeniseScaravella@aol.com.