Wish Book

Wish Book: After losing job, Miami grandmother hopes for permanent place to stay

Emilia Azum Fernandez spends the better nights on her daughter’s couch, or on an inflatable mattress on a close friend’s floor.

The rest of the time, the 57-year-old parks her car outside her daughter’s or her friend’s house, slips into the backseat of her bitty Chevrolet Aveo LS and curls into the fetal position.

Sleeping in the car hurts her back, injured earlier this year when Azum Fernandez, then a hotel housekeeper, carried a heavy laundry load. She lost her job after the injury, she said. She no longer has a place of her own.

“I can’t take it anymore,” she said, through tears.

It wasn’t always this way.

Azum Fernandez moved from Cuba a decade ago, she said, leaving her post as an administrator in the University of Havana to take cleaning jobs in Miami. The mother of three and grandmother of seven found work quickly and was proud of how she managed for herself.

But last year, she said she began having trouble with a new boss at a Coconut Grove hotel. He wanted to cut her hours and have her work nights, she said.

In February, while trying to lift a heap of laundry, she hurt her lower back. Doctors at the hospital, where she spent several days, told her she had cracked a vertebra in her spine. They also found a cyst and told her she should no longer lift more than 20 pounds.

Back at work, she said her manager told her it would be difficult to find a light-duty job.

To make matters worse, Azum Fernandez, an epileptic since age 14, suffered a seizure.

An ambulance returned her to the hospital. She missed more days of work and ended up losing her job, her health insurance, her $600-a-month efficiency apartment.

The settlement she received from workers’ compensation went to paying hospital bills, said Guillermo De Nacimiento, her case worker at the Epilepsy Foundation of Florida, which nominated Azum Fernandez for the Miami Herald Wish Book.

“She can’t stand for anything more than 15 minutes,” De Nacimiento said. “She can barely walk for an extended period of time.”

The foundation covers her epilepsy treatment.

But it can’t provide her with a home — Azum Fernandez’s holiday wish — or pay for her other healthcare expenses, including about a dozen medications that she keeps on a worn, handwritten piece of paper. She treats her hypertension, for example, but not her glaucoma, an eye condition that in some cases can lead to blindness.

“I’ve never been able to treat it, because I don’t have any money,” said Azum Fernandez, who declared bankruptcy in 2011, even before she lost her job.

Among her most important medications are those prescribed by a psychiatrist she said she sees once a month to ease her nerves.

Sometimes, the medication has not been enough. In her most desperate moments, she said she has considered taking her own life.

“She’s in a crisis,” said her daughter, Saily Hernandez.

Hernandez’s house just north of Coral Gables is in her mother’s name. But it’s Hernandez who pays for it and lives there, her mother said. Hernandez supports four children and her husband, who also recently lost his job.

The daughter offers her mother, whom she calls “Mima,” the couch. But there’s only so much the anxious Azum Fernandez says she can take of being surrounded by her energetic grandchildren.

“I wish I had the money to say, ‘Mima, I’ll put you up in an efficiency,’ but I don’t,” Hernandez said. And mom doesn’t always ask for help, either. An ashamed Azum Fernandez did not tell her daughter right away that she was sleeping in her car.

Azum Fernandez said she receives $680 a month in unemployment benefits, though they end soon. She also receives $170 a month in food stamps.

Her monthly expenses, she said, include $100 for car insurance, $85 for psychiatric visits, $80 for gas and $50 for cell phone service — without including medication, other doctor visits, additional food costs and the token payments she makes to her friend who lets her stay over.

Azum Fernandez applied for disability benefits months ago but hasn’t heard back, she said. She has also applied for public housing vouchers twice, without any luck.

So for now, she chews her nails, wrings her hands and makes do with a gray sweatshirt that keeps her warm in her car’s backseat.

“I sleep very little,” she said.