By Sam Bojarski
From mental health counseling and youth programs, to assistance for immigrants, Haitian-led community-based organizations (CBOs) provide essential services to residents throughout Brooklyn and Queens.
But the novel coronavirus pandemic that forced an economic shutdown in March has impacted their service delivery in a variety of ways. At the same time, the communities that CBOs serve have dealt with the consequences of the virus, including the emotional impact of losing loved ones, financial difficulties and lack of access to technology.
Rachel Dure, who works directly with seniors to connect them with health care, housing and other services, as a case manager for the Haitian-American Community Coalition (HCC), said she now speaks to clients every two weeks, via the video conferencing platform Zoom. More than 90 percent of the people HCC serves are of Caribbean descent.
“A lot of our clients are not tech savvy, so trying to teach them Zoom has been a feat,” said Dure, who noted that many clients have to call in on their phones, since they lack smartphones, tablets or a strong Wi-Fi connection.
Dure also said clients continue to struggle with the fear of leaving their homes and contracting the virus, despite New York’s steady decrease in new cases in recent months.
Haitian-led CBOs also serve undocumented immigrants in New York, who cannot access state unemployment benefits. Thanks to donation money from the Open Society Foundation (OSF), Haitians Americans United for Progress (HAUP), Diaspora Community Services and Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees have received allocations of $50,000 or more to provide cash assistance for the undocumented.
HAUP itself has received a $75,000 allocation. The distributions began in June, and the program will run through the end of July, according to HAUP executive director Elsie Saint Louis.
“There’s more demand than any of us can possibly meet,” Saint Louis said.
Across New York City, the coronavirus has infected about 226,000 people, claiming more than 23,300 lives. Low-income and minority neighborhoods have tested positive at higher rates than the rest of the city.
While health experts have recommended isolation for those who test positive, these requirements have also created stress for Haitian families, according to Brooklyn-based psychiatrist Dr. Louis Belzie, who is affiliated with multiple hospitals in the area.
“How do we observe quarantine when you might have four people living in a one-bedroom apartment? So you have only one bathroom, one shower, right? So that’s one aspect of the disease,” Belzie said.
Some families have lost multiple people to the virus. Church closures and social distancing guidelines have prevented these families from going through the normal grieving process.
“During this time, you know, it seems that all of those things (are) being pulled out. They cannot really grieve normally,” Belzie said.
Mental health counseling is just one of the many services HCC offers ‒ in addition to health education, fitness programming and supportive housing services, to name a few.
“We had to shift this due to COVID-19, so we could continue to practice social distancing,” said Fuljens Henry, deputy executive director of HCC.
While he did not have specific numbers, Henry said HCC has seen an increase in referrals for mental health services since March.
Mental health counselors have communicated with clients through Zoom and the telephone. For its supportive programs targeted to immune-compromised clients, including those living with HIV-AIDS, HCC has used the telephone and social media platforms like Whatsapp for communication.
“It’s been a work-in progress, because there’s some clients who are either not as tech savvy, and we have the language barrier and so forth. And the best platform for them has been the telephone service. But the general population who are used to being on social media, used to being able to navigate through a mobile phone … video conferencing has been very, very successful,” Henry said.
The FITBK fitness programming HCC has offered for seven years has also gone virtual. But so far, this has meant new audiences for the program, that extend beyond New York City and even into the Caribbean.
The Brooklyn-based Diaspora Community Services, which provides health education workshops, family support services and a summer program for youth, has also been forced to change its service delivery in recent months.
Carine Jocelyn, Diaspora’s chief executive officer, cited many of the same challenges as HCC, when it comes to providing these services virtually.
“A big challenge that remains is that, depending on the community members, they do not use computers or tablets, or don’t really know how to access virtual web-related work or information,” she said.
The organization has made efforts to connect clients with technology. Brooklyn Community Foundation, Jocelyn said, has provided funding to connect some of the homeless youth Diaspora serves with laptops.
As COVID-19 accelerates the use of virtual tools and telehealth services, a study released this month by the nonprofit health insurer EmblemHealth showed that telehealth can potentially widen the gap in health disparities among Black and Latino communities.
The study surveyed 1,000 New Yorkers across all five boroughs, about access to health care and technology. Among other findings, the study found that nearly one-third of Black New Yorkers reported inadequate internet access, while 82 percent of the general population reported adequate internet in their homes.
COVID-19 has exacerbated existing barriers to care, including transportation and financial barriers, while making it more difficult to secure child care for parents.
“For households with access to technology and internet, telehealth can help address these barriers, but for those that do not (have access), it may exacerbate existing disparities,” said Kwame Patterson, an EmblemHealth spokesperson.
A lack of policy changes to increase telehealth access could make the situation worse. Patterson suggested health care organizations could help by providing free Wi-Fi at community locations, offering digital literacy courses and equipping private spaces with technology, for use by community members.
Within the Haitian community, Dr. Belzie noted a gap between youth and older adults in accessing mental health services, the latter group being more likely to lack technology skills.
“They like to go to someone they know,” Belzie also said of older adults.
“Technology’s a big problem for them. How to go to the internet and manipulate the website to get these types of things, they may not know how to get that,” he added.
Belzie said he has found success working through churches, to address the mental health needs of community members. He also said Creole-language radio programs, which community members also trust, can help inform people of where they can go for help.
Youth and their parents face challenges of their own this summer, with less programming options available for them.
Both Diaspora Community Services and HAUP, a social services nonprofit with offices in Brooklyn and Queens, typically provide summer programs every year. But neither organization is offering these youth programs this summer.
Through the Diaspora Community Services program, canceled due to the risk of gathering in large groups, youth undertook community assessments, visited colleges and went through a sexual health curriculum, among other activities, Jocelyn said.
Francesca Altes, an English Language Learner (ELL) teacher at Queens Collegiate high school, said the lack of summer programming citywide means children have fewer productive ways to spend their time this summer.
“A lot of parents are not going to feel comfortable with letting their children out to play in the parks. So I’m very concerned,” said Altes, referencing a recent spate of shootings that have occurred in Brooklyn and other areas of the city.
“No summer school means that they have nothing productive to do with their time, so a lot of parents are expressing … that they’re scared,” Altes said.
For fiscal year 2021, which began July 1, New York City has partially restored its Summer Youth Employment Program.
Altes said she wants to see more engaging virtual programs, tailored to students’ interests.
“That would have kept some of them home, because they love technology, they love music, they love video games,” she said.
HAUP programs like the 21st Century Horizons youth summer camp have provided opportunities for academic enrichment, social interaction and field trips for grade-school children.
Before the city passed its budget at the end of June, HAUP did not expect to hold a summer program this year. As a result, the organization anticipated needing fewer staff members and only kept essential staff. While HAUP learned in July that it would receive funding for a hybrid, virtual and in-person program, it did not have the time to prepare.
“So we counter-offered to do a fully virtual program, and that wasn’t accepted, so we opted out,” said Saint Louis.
The city’s Department of Youth and Community Development typically provides funding for the program. Losing this funding, in addition to fees for other services, has resulted in a 30 percent revenue decline at HAUP, compared to last year at this time, Saint Louis said.
HCC and Diaspora Community Services have not reported funding decreases. The latter nonprofit has actually seen more foundation support since the pandemic, Jocelyn noted.
Multiple organizations, including Life of Hope Center, Flanbwayan Haitian Literacy Project and Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees, have not returned requests for comment.
The pandemic forced HAUP to go remote with programs like immigration and cash assistance for immigrants. But staff are now in the office two days each week, to provide immigration, cash assistance and special needs services, Saint Louis said.
HAUP’s direct service providers, many of whom provide care to those with mental disabilities, have continued to provide services in the home. These employees have seen their roles change, with the pandemic.
“We have to talk to people about access to testing … we’ve had issues educating people about if they are able to pay their rent, where will they go for cash assistance,” Saint Louis said.
“We are having conversations about food insecurities, where there are food banks, where they’re giving (out) food,” she added.
Providing access to food has been a critical service for Haitian-led CBOs. HAUP has coordinated food box giveaways and partnered with Sacred Heart Church, in Queens, to distribute food to community members. HCC continues to partner with Flatlands Reformed Church for a food distribution, every Saturday at 11 a.m.
As prices for essential groceries rise, Dure said HCC is also educating clients on simple recipes they can make, by sharing videos through social media and Whatsapp. A majority of the clients HCC serves are on food stamps.
“A lot of things have become more expensive, meat and vegetables, even a gallon of milk,” Dure said. “Even if you could spend 200 before March, your 200 (dollars) is not going long now.”
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