PATERSON, NJ - Tommie Jean Jennings' life changed on September 27. That was the day sewage backed up from the pipes into her Carbon Street home, spewing sludge several inches deep across the floor in her living room, kitchen and bathroom. "We're not talking about water, we're talking about feces,'' said Jennings.
It was more than just a one-day catastrophe for Jennings. Many of her belongings were ruined. She has struggled to find a new home. And she has been forced to live under difficult circumstances. Angry and frustrated, Jennings attended the November 9 meeting of the Paterson City Council to ask for help and to question why the city had not come to her aid.
"I have no furniture,'' Jennings told the council members. "I have no kitchen table. I have no bed. I'm sleeping on a mattress on the floor. It's cold.''
On the day of the sewage overflow, the city provided her with a voucher for a hotel on Route 46, she said. But she had no way of getting there.
"That was all that was offered to me,'' Jennings said. "Why didn't I get the assistance that people with floods get, that people with fires get?''
Council members seemed moved by Jennings' story. Many of them said this was the first they had heard of the woman's plight.
"I would like to apologize to you for no one reaching out to help you,'' said Councilwoman Vera Ames-Garnes. "We will make sure that you don't have to sit on the floor and have no table to eat on. We will get you what you need. This will not happen again.''
Some council members said they were not sure what caused the September sewage problem at Carbon Street. But Councilman Rigo Rodriguez said Paterson has been dragging its feet to repair its antiquated sewer system. "Our sewer system needs to be addressed,'' Rodriguez said.
In fact, during one of its meetings in October, the city council discussed the city's out-dated sewer system - one that will cost tens of millions of dollar for short-term repairs and hundreds of millions of dollars for long-term solutions. At that meeting, the council learned that the city has missed a deadline for federal funding for sewer work and would have to wait another year to apply for the aid.
In response to Rodriguez' comments, Council President Aslon Goow Sr. said it was not clear whether the sewage problem at Jennings' home stemmed from problems in the city's sewers or from defects in the plumbing at her home.
Back in September, at the time of the overflow, city officials said the problem may have been caused when workers cleaning a sewer pipe in the area caused an adjacent pipe to burst, according to a story on northjersey.com. It's not clear whether the city has completed its investigation of the situation, or what it's findings might be. An employee at the Public Works department referred questions to Mayor Jeffrey Jones' office. A message left there has gone unreturned.
Jennings, 51, said several other homes on her block were affected by the sewage, but not as drastically as her because the overflow only hit their basements. A tenant, she has left the apartment where the spill happened and shifted to another one in the same building.
"Maybe if I was on welfare, I'd get more help,'' said Jennings, a cottage training technician at the North Jersey Developmental Center in Totawa. "I'm a taxpayer. But they don't seem to care about a working woman.''
Jennings said the city's assistance office has given her a list of possible apartments she could move into, but none of them have worked out. Landlords, she said, have refused to sign the forms the city requires for her relocation. "What does that tell you? They probably have violations and don't want the city to come in and inspect the place,'' Jennings said.
Councilman Kenneth Morris said the city should use Jennings' case to improve the ways helps people in situations like hers. He suggested the relocation office provide transportation, along with hotel vouchers, for people in emergencies. He also said the city should create a "one-stop" office she could have contacted for all the types of assistance she needed. "One of the things we learned tonight is that part of the system didn't work for this young lady,'' Morris said.
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