The Neediest Cases
By JOHN OTIS

Though Melissa Ferrer moved into her new home in July, she has refused to paint her sons’ bedroom walls blue. She does not dare get too comfortable, a symptom of her years of homelessness.

Ms. Ferrer, 33, is a single mother of five sons. All of them have spent portions of their childhoods in New York City’s shelter system. What made the experience even worse, Ms. Ferrer said, was that her three youngest children — Aiden Soto, 3; Angel Soto, 7; and Justin Ferrer, 8 — are autistic. They also have attention-deficit disorder and anxiety disorders.

“It’s not a good life,” she said. “It’s hard and it’s stressful and it hurts. Not only for me to live that life but to see the children living that life and to know you’re not stable.”

Last year, she made a successful bid for affordable housing in the Bronx. But in her haste to move, she signed the rental agreement without proper due diligence. The apartment flooded every time it rained. Mold grew on the walls. The heat did not work. Insulation was shoddy. Bugs wiggled up through broken floorboards, traumatizing Justin, who has an insect phobia.

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“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life, and I lived in shelters,” Ms. Ferrer said. “Animals were coming in and my kids, my children, are sleeping, getting bit by ants.”

This summer, with the help of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, one of the eight organizations supported by The New York Times’s Neediest Cases Fund, the family moved into a safer, cleaner home in the Bronx. Drawing from the Neediest funds, Catholic Charities also provided $321 in school clothes for the children.

Despite escaping the gloomy shelters and crumbling apartments, a steady beat of chaos remains.

On a recent afternoon at the family’s apartment, her sons’ mercurial temperaments were on display. They slammed doors and shouted and wailed in constant fits. Glass trinkets were removed from a coffee table and placed in a less precarious spot. One of her sons repeatedly threw a water bottle around the living room. Another snatched a tablet from his brother as he was watching a video.

“God must be giving me the strength, because I don’t know where a woman like me can have so much patience,” Ms. Ferrer said.

Her oldest children, Matthew Ferrer, 18, and Javon Murphy, 13, do their part to corral and calm their younger siblings. Ms. Ferrer speaks glowingly about Matthew in particular. He is rarely home, often working a food-service job to keep the house afloat. Her pride is coupled with guilt.

“He’s young, he doesn’t have any children,” she said. “He shouldn’t be having to deal with that.”

Ms. Ferrer is responsible for paying the roughly $1,000 monthly rent. She receives $1,486 every month in Social Security disability benefits for her three youngest children, $270 in food stamps and $300 that Matthew pitches in from his job. She does not receive child support from her children’s fathers, and because of her autistic sons’ care requirements, she has not worked in more than eight years, since shortly before Justin was born.

“I never thought I’d see myself the way I’m seeing myself, struggling so much,” she said.

The family’s tight finances are a steady source of anxiety for Ms. Ferrer, who worries her family may once again be without a home. As long as she has one, she is meticulous about keeping it pristine. She said she simply cannot tolerate dirty things.

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Each morning, she races to get her four school-age children ready. They all attend different schools, riding different buses that arrive at different times. She does it all alone. The children’s fathers cannot be relied on, Ms. Ferrer said, and although she has many family members nearby, they do not help.

“You would think, having such a big family, that we’d be together but we’re not,” she said. “Everybody’s in their own world.”

Her stress is visible. Large clumps of her hair have fallen out. She has cut her hair short to make it less noticeable. Her knees and legs ache from spending long hours on her feet, and she has begun to have panic attacks.

“I might look 33, but I’ll tell you one thing, inside my body, I don’t feel 33,” said Ms. Ferrer. “I feel like I’m 70 years old.”

She dreams of going on vacation, even for a day or two, but she knows it will not be reality. Instead, respite comes in short doses at the end of the day. When her children are in bed, she showers, reflects and thanks God for giving her and her family another day.

“I’m so tired,” Ms. Ferrer said. “Then I’ll get up at five in the morning, and do this all over again.”