By Sam Bojarski | Sam@haitiantimes.com

The coronavirus pandemic has upended lives in Haitian communities across the globe. Its emotional, economic and health toll was felt by millions. Now, one year after the March 2020 shutdowns in the U.S. and Haiti, The Haitian Times will produce a series of stories on how the community has weathered these unprecedented times.

Last March, the Haitian-American Alliance (HAA) helped assemble a coronavirus task force, with an 800 number to connect community members with resources in Creole. From callers, the nonprofit received regular feedback about community needs during the pandemic, and more recently has used this information to complete a formal needs assessment. 

“In our community we had a big problem, we didn’t have food pantries,” said HAA President Yolette Williams, detailing one of several needs her organization identified. 

HAA identified community vulnerabilities through the needs assessment, as part of an ongoing partnership with the New York City Emergency Management (NYCEM) department. The partnership launched in January and is part of NYCEM’s Strengthening Communities Through Recovery program that involves a total of nine community networks citywide. It will help community leaders in areas hard-hit by the pandemic allocate resources to prepare for the next crisis. 

“The Haitian American Alliance of New York put in a fantastic proposal, and this program will help them build a community-level response and recovery plan,” said Herman Schaffer, an acting deputy commissioner with NYCEM. “Our team will facilitate coaching sessions, monthly program meetings, and programmatic webinars to ensure leaders receive ample guidance and support during this process.”

NYCEM did not detail the other eight organizations involved in the program, despite a request.

Through the program, each partner receives $20,000 to complete five projects by August. Aside from the needs assessment, deliverables include a community map, or resource directory, a written communications strategy to share with community organizations, identifying community leaders to activate during an emergency and developing a written volunteer management strategy, Schaffer said. 

HAA is still developing its plan, which focuses on the Flatbush and East Flatbush communities, Williams said.

Haiti is the leading country of origin among the foreign-born population in the two neighborhoods, according to 2018 Census data reported by New York City,. And Flatbush and East Flatbush combined contain more than 19,000 people of Haitian ancestry, although the U.S. Census figures are almost certainly undercounted. 

Haitians among hardest-hit, aid groups shift models

East Flatbush residents faced food access challenges before the pandemic, with the nonprofit Food Bank for New York City reporting that 25% of residents in Community Board 17, which includes East Flatbush, were food insecure as of 2019. The pandemic then forced the closure of 11 pantries in the community board by April 2020, the nonprofit reported

Seeing the ongoing financial hardship and job loss, the nonprofit Life of Hope Center started a food pantry in East Flatbush this year that runs through April 17

To be sure, HAA did not rank community needs in order of priority. Many needs are intertwined. For example, job loss, the high cost of living in New York City and lack of digital literacy forced people to make difficult financial choices and prevented people from accessing key resources like food, said Williams. 

But to increase food access, Williams said HAA has proposed circulating Haitian Creole information about the GetFoodNYC emergency food delivery program and advocating for more food pantries with neighborhood community boards. 

Over the past year, the Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force has identified other needs, including crowded living conditions that prevent social distancing and the need to disseminate accurate health information. 

In 2021, education needs have shifted from COVID-19 prevention, to encouraging vaccine uptake. Trusted community institutions like churches and radio stations need to play an increased role in spreading information, particularly among the elderly population, said Dr. Jean-Claude Compas, a retired physician who helped coordinate the COVID-19 Task Force. 

“They believe, they trust their pastors,” said Compas, who was familiar with the NYCEM needs assessment but was not directly involved in its preparation. “It’s very important to talk to the pastor, educate the pastor so they can educate their [congregations].”

Evangelical Crusade Christian Church, in East Flatbush, has partnered with New York State to encourage community members to get vaccinated. 

But with funding support from the city, health professionals can partner with churches to lead even more educational efforts, said Compas.

“There is an effort that is being made within the community, but not enough,” Compas said. “If New York City can help us, we can go and do a lot more work.” 

The complete needs assessment has thus far only been shared with NYCEM, as part of the ongoing partnership that will end this summer. Findings have not yet been made public. 

“We’re just at the level where we did our needs assessment,” Williams said. “We have to do our community mapping to look at the resources and all of those things, so we’re feeding [NYCEM] with a lot of information.” 

The Haitian-American COVID-19 Task Force can be reached at 1-800-865-2950.

Sam Bojarski

Sam is a reporter for The Haitian Times and a 2020 Report for America fellow. He has covered Haiti and its diaspora since 2018. His work has also appeared in USA Today, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and...

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