From Haiti To A Housing Crisis: Earthquake Evacuees Struggle

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Guylene Clerger-Hyacinthe, who came to the U.S. in January because of the earthquake, gets help at the Haitian Family Resource Center on her filing for deferred action so that she may stay in the country.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Guylene Clerger-Hyacinthe, who came to the U.S. in January because of the earthquake, gets help at the Haitian Family Resource Center on her filing for deferred action so that she may stay in the country.

Nine months after the Haitian earthquake brought a wave of refugees to New York, the city’s Haitian-American communities are struggling with a different kind of crisis. Increasing numbers of those who arrived in the aftermath of the quake and were taken in by relatives and strangers find their welcome has worn thin.

Often unable to get jobs because of a steep language barrier and irregular immigration status, and ineligible for public benefits, the evacuees’ needs challenge a community that was already struggling with high rates of poverty and the effect of the economic downturn.

The biggest need by far is finding a place to live, say case workers and volunteers who work with people displaced by the earthquake. No one knows precisely how many Haitians arrived in New York since the January 24 earthquake. Many are in the country illegally, having overstayed a tourist visa.

“It seems like most people in Brooklyn have had some family, friend or someone they knew stay with them. A lot of them now are not happy about it, because that person had very little for themselves anyway and now they are having to share it with someone. There is frustration on both sides,” says Marilyn Pierre, director of the Haitian Family Resource Center, a tiny not-for-profit that sprang up in response to the earthquake. “I have one young lady who just gave birth, she had a C-section. Her uncle had to tell her to leave because more family was coming in. Now she is staying in a basement with the newborn.”

Pressure on families

Similar stories are being repeated across Brooklyn and Queens, advocates say. Often, families that initially hosted one evacuee now need to make room for more, or closer, family members. Or financial pressures mean the host family needs to rent the evacuee’s room to paying tenants. Or having a refugee family of four or five squeezed into the living room just becomes too much for the host.

That’s what happened to Ms. Jean, a woman who won’t give her name for fear of embarrassing her family. On a day in mid-September, she is sitting in the Haitian Family Resource Center in Flatbush, pursing her lips in an effort not to cry.

Jean lived with her sister for a week after the earthquake, but left because her brother-in-law didn’t want her in the house. Since May she has been living in a small apartment with a friend, the friends’ husband and four children, sleeping on the sofa.

“Where I am now they give me a cold shoulder, they are looking at me. I am uncomfortable because I don’t have any way to contribute to the finances,” she says through an interpreter. She had intended to leave New York for Belgrade, where she thought she might have a job in the Haitian Embassy (she’s worked for the Haitian government before) but she was mugged in Crown Heights and her airfare–in cash–was stolen. She’s acutely aware of being a burden on her hosts.

“From what I hear, after a while the welcome begins to wear out. Things become a challenge,” says Toya Williford, program director at the Brooklyn Community Foundation, which provided funding for a dozen community organizations serving Haitians in New York after the earthquake. “We definitely have heard of people who have been turned out. A lot of the individuals and families have elected not to go into the shelter system but have stayed with a friend or another family member. Anecdotally, you have these faith-based communities that are trying to provide for everyone.”

Resources strained

Verel Montauban, pastor of Haitian First Church New York, which sponsors the Haitian Family Resource Center, says his church is doing everything it can to help displaced Haitians, but the needs are tremendous, and beyond the church’s capability.

“I feel like there is bleeding in my heart,” he said on a recent afternoon, as a series of clients waited to talk to him in a room adjacent to the church. “I don’t have any resources to help them. The situation is completely critical. We do have some clothes downstairs. Before, we would give them food, but we don’t have any food now. Some people I am letting sleep in the basement, it’s better than having them on the street,” he said.

What the Family Resource Center does do is help people apply for Temporary Protected Status, an immigration designation that allows them to stay in the United States. But TPS only applies to people who were in the United States before the earthquake; it does nothing for people who fled the devastated country on tourist visas and are now in violation of immigration law.

The center also helps people begin other immigration proceedings, refers them to job training programs, directs qualified applicant–those with American-born children for example–to food stamps or other government programs and, mostly, listens to their concerns.

But in a city where finding an affordable apartment is already a massive challenge, Montauban and the other counselors at the Haitian Family Resource Center can’t do much for people looking for somewhere to stay. The center hopes to be part of another program initiated by the Brooklyn Community Foundation that will give gift cards, Metrocards and grocery cards to earthquake evacuees.
“This is a way to provide for the household, so that people can offer something for their hosts,” Williford says. The program has $25,000 to dispense, she said.

That amount pales compared to what was raised for disaster relief in Haiti, says Peter Gudiatis, executive director of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, which coordinates religious communities’ response to catastrophes. NYDIS helped direct Lutheran, Muslim and Sikh resources to local Haitian groups. Gudiatis says some of the $2 million raised for Haiti relief through the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City should have been reserved for the Haitian community in New York.

“Raising millions of dollars and then sending it out of the city when you have all these Haitian here in great need who are now putting a strain on the cities resources and economy doesn’t seem to make sense,” he said. “Now these families not only have the burden of caring for their own family [and evacuees], but also of the families in Haiti who have absolutely nothing,” and whom New York Haitians are helping by sending money home.

“You can see the huge emotional and financial strain. When tragedy happens overseas, the impact on the family here can be bankruptcy,” Gudiatis says. Sixty percent of New York Haitians lost a family member in the earthquake, he adds.

A range of needs

But while front line case workers say housing needs are acute, few Haitians are showing up in the city’s shelter system, according to Heather Janik, a spokesperson for the Department of Homeless Services.

“A very small number of Haitian evacuees have sought assistance from Homeless Services community-based prevention providers and we are working with them to ensure that they access benefits and remain stably housed. Correspondingly, a few earthquake victims have presented at the family intake center and have been assisted,” she said in a statement.

DHS does not ask questions about country of origin or keep track of languages spokes by clients, so it is possible more Haitians are applying for assistance than the agency is aware of. But Ninaj Raoul, executive director of Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, says the community is reluctant to enter the shelter system and her organization and others are reluctant to refer people to it because DHS doesn’t have adequate means to communicate with Creole speakers. And getting help through the city’s homeless services system can be difficult even for native New Yorkers who speak the language. DHS caseworkers routinely tell applicants to stay with family or friends, even if a doubled-up or tripled-up living situation is what drove them to the shelter.

(Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees does have one client seeking assistance from DHS, but she declined to be interviewed because she feared talking to the media would jeopardize her application with DHS or attract the attention of immigration authorities.)

Raoul has also been approached by people who came to the United States for emergency medical treatment. “A lot of the organizations that brought people in for medical care, they take them, give them treatment then send them back. A lot of organizations responded, not thinking what was going to happen in the long run. Folks are not going to volunteer to go back to Haiti, knowing they will be living in a tent in hurricane season, as a double amputee,” Raoul says. “But when the people’s medical treatment is done, the groups are basically like, ‘OK, we’re done with you.’ “

That’s when Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees steps in, trying to broker deals where patients can stay on in medical facilities during rehabilitation, or working to line up new host families. “Basically you move around every few days,” she says of the patients.

Raoul and others are frustrated that the city- and state-sponsored Haitian resource center established at the National Guard Armory on Bedford Avenue in the months after the quake failed to offer help with finding affordable apartments. “It did not address this issue at all. This was the one things that they should have been addressing and they weren’t,” Raoul says.

The Armory assistance center did help people apply for TPS, enroll eligible families in food stamps or WIC and direct newly arrived families with children to city schools.

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