24 Sep

National Geographic: Kids Struggle to Breathe in This Neighborhood on Pope’s Tour

Photo by Kieran Kesner for National Geographic

A feature on neighborhoods visited by Pope Francis on his US tour includes profiles of families in LSA Family Health Service’s Environmental Health Services program.

POPE FRANCIS IN THE U.S.

Kids Struggle to Breathe in This Neighborhood on Pope’s Tour

In East Harlem, families live with traffic exhaust, cockroaches, and mold. Kids there are three times more likely to suffer an asthma attack that sends them to an ER.

By Lindsey Konkel

Photographs by Kieran Kesner

PUBLISHED THU SEP 24 07:00:00 EDT 2015

[EXCERPT]

Less than a block from where the pope will meet East Harlem families Friday at Our Lady Queen of Angels School, Elizabeth Gonzalez shares a two-bedroom apartment in a public housing project with her three kids ranging in age from 15 to 20.

Cockroaches scurry across the walls and floor. She’s tried to get rid of them, but they keep coming back—through the electric outlets and from under the sink, where leaking pipes create a black sludge. Her floor is wet, her walls damp and moldy. Garbage bags stacked in the living room keep the family’s possessions dry.

Gonzalez thumbs through a notebook full of unresolved maintenance requests for her home. It takes months for the New York City Housing Authority to respond to such requests. Often maintenance workers don’t come when they say they’re going to come, even after she’s taken the day off work. And when they do finally show up, they offer little help, she says.

Everyone in her family has asthma. Cockroaches and mold trigger attacks.

“I’m happy to have a roof over my head, but this apartment is keeping us sick,” says Gonzales, a grade school assistant teacher who makes only $26,000 a year.

“People feel trapped. They hold on to these awful apartments, because it’s all they have. It’s their home, their community,” says Ray Lopez, director of environmental health and family asthma for LSA Family Health Service, a nonprofit that serves more than 7,000 East Harlem residents, including Gonzalez and Smith.

LSA was founded by the Little Sisters of the Assumption, a religious order of nuns that provides health services to poor families around the world. Pope Francis’ own family sought help from the Little Sisters of the Assumption in Barrio de Flores, the working-class Buenos Aires neighborhood where he grew up.

José Espinoza, who has a daughter with asthma, gets family health services through LSA. Under the canopy of his Second Avenue flower stand, Espinoza wraps a bouquet of sunflowers and describes the poor conditions of his sixth-floor walk-up apartment. It’s infested with cockroaches and bedbugs, and he worries that allergies to the insects trigger his daughter’s asthma attacks and make his other children sick.

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