Some of the 2,000 people that the Haitian Community Health Center serves each year are among the most vulnerable in Brooklyn. The Health Center’s specialty is helping mentally ill Haitian immigrants, people who often speak no English and have little money and little experience in how to get by in New York City. But just a few weeks ago, executive director Lola Poisson got some bad news. The group’s main source of funding for the last six years, a $500,000 contract from the city Department of Mental Health, won’t be renewed when it expires at the end of June.
The Haitian Community Health Center provides many social services: AIDS outreach, programs for normal and emotionally disturbed kids, family support projects, and programs to help parolees readjust. But its focus is on mental health, with referral services and two “socialization” groups for the mentally ill. One of the groups meets three times a week for members to talk about problems and learn coping skills and stress management techniques. The other, for more seriously ill clients, provides structured classes and programs five days a week, including transportation to and from the center. Many of that group’s members have been in the program since it began in 1993. Poisson worries what will happen to them at the end of June. “This is like a second home to them,” she said.
Department of Mental Health spokesperson Sandra Mullin defended the agency’s decision to yank the contract, saying that the Haitian Community Health Center hadn’t lived up to its end of the deal. “Over the term of this contract, the agency overall has underperformed,” she said. “We have to maximize our ability to provide funding to agencies that will do the best possible job.” She also promised that the Health Center’s patients wouldn’t be abandoned: “That would go against the grain of the agency’s protocol.”
Poisson defended the group’s work, pointing out that they’d had good reviews from the department as recently as last December, and that one ex-employee in particular may have given the group a bad reputation. She also said that the mental health department never provided her group with technical assistance, despite requests. “They have their own agenda,” she said.
The lost contract may kill another project Poisson started two years ago, a network of Haitian community groups. Central Brooklyn, the heart of New York City’s Haitian population, has spawned many small community-based organizations that compete for resources, funding and clientele. Two years ago, Poisson set up the Haitian Strategic Alliance to coordinate the groups’ services.
“We’re trying not to duplicate each other’s work,” explained Jean Michel, executive director of Chay Pa Lou, which helps new immigrants deal with taxes and with citizenship classes and paperwork. “If someone went to [Poisson’s group] for immigration, she’d send them to us. When someone comes here for social services, like Medicaid, we sent them to her. Before this, one person would have three centers serving them, and we barely got funded.” Last November, a benefit for the coalition raised $14,000. Poisson had planned another benefit for this fall; now, she said, those plans are on hold.