Streams

Left Homeless by the Chinatown Fire, One Man Tries to Start Over

Thursday, May 13, 2010

On the corner of Eldridge and Grand Streets, 45-year-old Wai Man Kwok sits sipping green tea at a Chinese restaurant. Across the street is the empty lot where his building and the one next door used to be. Both were demolished after one of the worst fires in the city in years. The blaze killed one person and left about 200 others homeless.

"This is the jacket where I was wearing that day," he notes. "I don't have anything after that day...absolutely nothing."

Kwok moved to the United States 27 years ago from Hong Kong and he lived in that Chinatown building the entire time. It was a two bedroom, rent-controlled apartment for $435 a month, and not far from his job cutting fashion patterns in midtown. Since the fire, just over a month ago, he's been homeless and staying at a shelter in Harlem.

"I totally understand how the feeling is for the homeless," he says. "You don't know where to go. Very painful, I tell you. You know, since the fire I can't even sleep."

Kwok lost all his documents in the fire. His biggest struggle since then has been just trying to get his green card back. But when he showed up at the immigration department he learned that to even get into the building to apply for a new green card he needs some form of ID.

"They ask me what kind of document I have. I tell them I don't have any document. Everything was burned. So, you know, you can't come in. You can't come in to the building."

The city has arranged for fire victims to replace their documents without fees. And the Department of Housing Preservation and Development says it's working to find long-term housing for them. The city is not assigning blame in the fire, as Chief Fire Marshal Robert Byrnes announced last week.

"There will be no charges. This is clearly an accidental fire," Byrnes said.

The city says an overheated electric box was the cause. But Kwok doesn't seem too satisfied with that.

"What are you talking about. Nobody's fault?" he says. "All the wire, all the cable, all the plugs were too old."

Kwok says he and other residents would routinely complain to the landlord about the building's condition. City records show the building had several violations, including blocked passageways. Kwok says he and other residents plan on suing the landlord for compensation. The landlord's lawyer declined to comment.

For now, Kwok says he's determined to turn his life around.

"Things will have to get better," he says.

He says there's one upside to losing everything: You no longer worry when there's nothing more to lose.

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