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More than a year after the collapse of the World Trade towers, its effects are still surging through low-income communities in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. But federal relief seems to have eluded most residents and merchants in these neighborhoods, and a coalition of community and legal groups sued the feds last week to find out why.

Last week, the Beyond Ground Zero Network, a coalition of community and legal advocacy groups, filed a lawsuit against the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) under the Freedom of Information Act to obtain documents detailing how the agency has distributed disaster relief in these two communities.

Disturbed by data released to the group by FEMA in August, which showed that only a small fraction of households in Chinatown and the Lower East Side had applied for federal funding, the network said they would now like to see in full the feds’ policy guidelines, application criteria, and more data on applicants, approvals and the amounts distributed. A FEMA spokesperson declined to comment on the pending litigation.

“Individuals and communities that work and live in Ground Zero are still struggling to rebuild their lives,” said JoAnn Lum, director of the National Mobilization Against Sweatshops. “It is outrageous that the government not only continues to deprive us of relief but also refuses to release information that is rightfully public.”

In response to a Freedom of Information request filed by the network in July, FEMA released data showing that only 1.7 percent of households in Chinatown had applied for mortgage and rental assistance relief, and that less than half of those were approved. About 14 percent of the neighborhood’s households applied for the individual family grant, most of whom were approved.

Meanwhile, many more applications were filed in the areas immediately surrounding the Trade Center.

This small number of applications is not necessarily because of a lack of need. According to the Asian American Federation of New York, many of the nearly 8,000 Chinatown workers who lost their jobs after September 11 were still looking for work a year later.

What’s holding back low-wage and undocumented workers, says the Urban Justice Center, a member of the network, is a lack of documentation like pay stubs and apartment leases that are required to prove eligibility.

Members of the coalition also blame the limited outreach to individuals who are not a part of a network like a union for the low application rate.

Without the complete picture about how FEMA makes its funding decisions, “How are people going to get relief?” asked Jae Young Kim of the NYU School of Law Immigrant Rights Clinic, which is representing the coalition in the lawsuit. “What is the point of having relief programs if people don’t know how to apply for them?”

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