By Sam Bojarski
From Flatbush and Crown Heights in Brooklyn, to Cambria Heights and Jamaica in Queens, Haitian-led community-based organizations (CBOs) serve neighborhoods throughout the New York City metropolitan region that have been hardest-hit by the novel coronavirus pandemic that has infected more than 198,000 people citywide.
“The pandemic is affecting everybody,” said Elsie Saint-Louis, executive director of Haitian Americans United for Progress (HAUP), a nonprofit that provides immigration, health and educational services to Haitian-Americans, as well as the broader community in Queens and Brooklyn.
“Our issue is that the assistance and all the help that is available to every community is not being equally given or divided in the community that we serve,” Saint-Louis also told the Haitian Times.
According to HAUP, at least one in seven immigrants in New York City is Haitian. But despite their decades of experience providing services to community members, often in coordination with local government, Haitian CBO leaders say they have largely been left out of the conversation regarding the distribution of funds intended to support undocumented immigrants.
New York City’s Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs (MOIA) is working to coordinate an immigrant emergency relief program, created by a donation of $20 million from the Open Society Foundations (OSF). Through the program, CBOs throughout the city will be involved in distributing cash payments to immigrant constituents who are ineligible for assistance from the federal government. Up to 20,000 of the city’s more than 360,000 undocumented workers could benefit from the initial round of funding.
The one-time cash payment amounts available through the OSF fund range from $400 for single adults, to $1,000 for families with multiple adults and children. Non-citizens, a category that includes the undocumented, account for nearly one in five frontline workers at grocery stores, health care facilities and other essential businesses in New York City.
As of May 12, about 30 CBOs were selected to be part of the OSF-supported relief fund, although the city had not released a detailed list of the names of these groups due to the sensitivity of the program.
The implementation of the relief program comes amid growing calls for New York State to provide financial assistance for the undocumented. States like California, Oregon, Washington and Massachusetts have plans in place to implement assistance programs for undocumented immigrants.
According to Saint-Louis, half of the people HAUP serves are undocumented, and the organization has seen an increase in cash assistance requests, along with requests for food and legal services.
Since the pandemic started, the social services support agency Diaspora Community Services has provided increased mental health services, facilitated access to public benefits and offered translation services. Carine Jocelyn, Diaspora’s chief executive officer, said her organization has provided assistance to about 200 community members.
“I think most folks in our communities are dealing with the fear of getting (COVID-19), recuperating from COVID and/or dealing with issues of bereavement. Additionally poor people who qualify for Medicaid and those that don’t are facing issues of unemployment … therefore in need of supplemental cash and food,” Jocelyn told the Haitian Times in an email.
She added that foundations like The New York Community Trust, Robin Hood Foundation and Brooklyn Community Foundation have supported Haitian-led CBOs since mid-March.
But of the five Haitian-led CBOs whose leaders signed a joint Haitian community letter addressed to MOIA commissioner Bitta Mistofi, dated May 13, only two had been contacted by the agency as of May 19. Diaspora Community Services and Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees have each been given a $50,000 allocation to refer clients who need cash assistance, although the organizations themselves will not be receiving this money, according to Jocelyn. She expressed disappointment that more organizations were not involved in the process.
“HAUP is like, the organization in Queens and Brooklyn … why were they not included? That I don’t understand,” she said in a May 19 interview.
The May 13 Haitian community letter was signed by leaders of Diaspora Community Services, HAUP, Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, the Haitian-American Community Coalition (HCC) and Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project. The letter identified four priority areas for supporting the most fragile members of the Haitian community.
These included access to the Open Society Foundations fund for undocumented individuals, identification of key staff in city agencies who can assist individuals in their own language, consistent sharing of public information on Haitian radio stations and mental health services that take culturally sensitive issues into consideration.
The five CBOs requested a grant of $2 million from the OSF fund, to address urgent community needs.
“We are honored that the President of OSF, Patrick Gaspard is Haitian American and was instrumental in beginning this fund. Our organizations are experienced, provide linguistically and culturally competent services and continue to provide services with limited resources during this time,” the letter stated.
An OSF spokesperson directed questions regarding the process of working with the various CBOs and the timeline for distributing money to the Mayor’s Office on Immigration Affairs.
While the mayor’s office was still in the process of rolling out the program as of May 20, other organizations that serve immigrant populations were apparently already working to distribute the money.
The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City is working with MOIA to launch the immigrant emergency relief program as swiftly as possible, Esther Rosario, a spokesperson for MOIA told the Haitian Times in a May 20 email.
“In coordination with Open Societies Foundation, a citywide network of about 30 community based organizations with an additional 20 referral partner organizations that serve their communities in over 20 languages and dialects and reflect the demographic and professional diversity within the community has been formed, including a number of organizations that serve the Haitian community,” Rosario also said.
“We are working closely with these organizations to finalize emergency contracts and troubleshoot any technology or infrastructural needs to ensure these organizations have what they need to launch the program this week,” she added.
The New York Immigrant Coalition (NYIC), which represents over 200 immigrant and refugee rights groups in New York City and other regions of the state, has been working to distribute funds from the OSF program, as well as from private donations, the organization’s communications manager, Rush Perez, said in a May 19 email.
“But this is nowhere near enough. The said fact is that Washington has left America’s immigrants out in the cold in the (last) four federal stimulus packages. That’s why we are pushing our elected officials in Congress, especially Senate Minority Leader Schumer, to deliver relief for NY’s 360,000 undocumented front line workers,” Perez added.
Jocelyn told the Haitian Times that while NYIC appears to be a key player in the distribution of the OSF money, the group had not reached out to the Haitian community, as far as she knew.
While the money from the OSF fund is intended to provide cash assistance for undocumented residents, Jocelyn noted that the $50,000 allocation will not support her organization’s staffing needs and other services that have helped clients since the pandemic started.
“We’re getting a $50,000 allocation, the money is not coming to us. What they’re saying is we’re putting aside $50,000 for your clientele to access cash assistance. So you’re going to refer to another organization those who you believe are eligible,” she said. “Diaspora’s not getting paid for the work that they have to do to identify people.”
For Haitian-led CBOs in New York City, having the ability to assist immigrant clients during the pandemic is an issue that goes well beyond money alone.
Each of these CBOs speaks on behalf of a population that often cannot advocate for themselves, said Saint-Louis, of HAUP. She also mentioned that the current political climate in the country has created widespread fear in immigrant communities.
“What we are talking about is access for the undocumented Haitians that this community based organization serves,” she said.
“Our focus is getting those Haitians to go from their home to a place that they are safe, that they know, that’s going to give them service, just like everybody got the stimulus in the bank,” Saint-Louis added, in reference to the $1,200 federal stimulus checks.
Jocelyn hopes that any future immigrant relief efforts by the city will be more inclusive of Haitian CBOs and the communities they serve.
“What I understand is this is their first round, they are trying to raise more funds for a second round, and so I really advocated that all five organizations are included in the second round, hoping that there is a second round,” Jocelyn said.