This article is part of a series about how Haitian American nonprofit organizations in New York City are operating during a time when the community’s needs outpace funding received.
BROOKLYN — In the thick of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020, one man in Flatbush walked around his building, asking neighbors to order some food for him since he didn’t have a smartphone. The man, a Haitian immigrant, lived alone and didn’t have access to resources to obtain food.
The man’s story is just one of scores that surfaced during a year-long assessment by Haitian American Alliance of New York (HAA) of the community’s needs. The survey found the community lacking in nine major categories: Food access, housing, utilities, internet connectivity, personal care items, COVID-19 resources, healthcare disparities, access to mental health services and assistance for people with disabilities. Economic hardship, HAA found, underpins all of those needs and exacerbates them.
Yolette Williams, CEO of HAA, shared HAA’s findings with key stakeholders at the Evangelical Crusade of Fishers of Men church and in a virtual meeting in June.
“The whole idea of our assessment was to strengthen our community because we know our communities better than any city agency,” Williams said during the church meeting. “We’ll be working with church members to educate our community in areas like health, education, socioeconomic and civic endeavors.”
Funded by the New York City Emergency Management agency, the assessment was born out of a need for city agencies to understand the barriers in reaching certain communities. As a Haitian organization, HAA hoped to immediately help the community prioritize programs and funding strategies to not only address crises, but to also advance the community’s interests.
The Haitian community: a primer
Haitians have been forming in New York since the 1960s and growing with each passing decade. By the 2010s, Brooklyn’s Haitian enclaves had expanded into diverse segments – economically, culturally and generationally.
Many struggle economically in low- to middle-income jobs. The median household income of $57,800 in Haitian-heavy zip codes is well below the city’s already skewed median of $67,046. As a result, many Haitians struggle to find safe, affordable housing, where average rents for a 2-bedroom apartment easily top $3,000. All this while still sending funds back home to support loved ones in Haiti.
Some are not fluent in English and often face a barrier in accessing information or advocating for their needs, including jobs, healthcare, education and immigration. Others, mostly older, Haitian residents are not computer literate.
So when COVID-19 began spreading across New York City in spring 2020, deaths and infection rates hit Haitians hard. For months, the predominantly-Black enclaves were persistently in New York State’s top 10 neighborhoods to watch for coronavirus infections and deaths.
Misinformation took hold as traditional ways of communicating, such as large in-person gatherings, closed off people – adding much stress to sick and worried households. As a result, much of the support the community did receive came through grassroots efforts and word of mouth.
“We held presentations with doctors during Sunday morning services to talk about the virus coming,” said Samuel Nicolas, senior pastor at Evangelical Crusade. “We installed hand sanitizer machines in the whole building prior to the pandemic, so we were very prepared.”
But leaders recognized more needed to be done and formed a COVID taskforce, led by HAA.
The needs assessment process
Seeing the disparities, the city’s Emergency Management department gave $20,000 grants in 2021 to 10 organizations to help the city better prepare for future crises by surfacing those communities’ needs.
HAA swiftly established an 800 hotline number for Haitians to tell their stories and interviewed 300 residents of Flatbush and East Flatbush. With the support of four staffers and volunteers, the 26-year-old Brooklyn-based group amassed enough information to categorize 40 data points. It then synthesized the information with help from a consultant into the nine major categories of need.
Specifically, the assessment found:
- Many residents did not have access to food pantries because of COVID-19. A finding corroborated by Hunter College’s New York City Food Policy Center, which found 25% of residents in East Flatbush have issues with food insecurity.
- Residents had trouble finding housing due to loss of employment and eviction threats, on top of the existing reasons that drove housing prices up.
- Flatbush and East Flatbush, the heart of the Haitian community in Brooklyn, rank in the second-lowest percentage group of internet connectivity. Between 19% and 23% have no access to the internet, according to data from the Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York. By comparison, the citywide percentage is 6% to 33%.
- The pandemic also magnified health and racial equity disparities when it came to providing PPE for Haitian-Americans and vaccine distribution sites existed at first in the communities.
Helping while still assessing
Judite Blanc, the community consultant who worked on the study, said as the study progressed, HAA began to take action to help alleviate the issues so many residents had shared via the hotline and through the COVID-19 Task Force’s activities.
That group participated in several virtual panels to educate the community about COVID-19 and mental health, systemic racism and preparing for school re-opening that garnered nearly 25,000 views. Its members also worked with elected officials to organize a Haitian-led food pantry in local churches serving approximately 12,000 people, according to Williams. They also collaborated with HealthFirst on two virtual forums to encourage testing for COVID, antibody and cardiovascular issues.
Taskforce members also took to doing ad hoc community outreach to encourage mask-wearing and testing via Haitian radio programs and various churches’ prayer line conference calls.
“I’ve always known to wash my hands, but Yolette’s work encouraged me to wear the mask and keep up with precautions,” said Nadine Fortilus, who heard Williams’ talk about the importance of wearing masks at a community event.
“Hearing it from her wasn’t a case of it going from one ear and out the other. The point was doing it to protect myself and my family,” Fortilus said. “The work they’re doing is really good and important.”
In June, during one of the 45-minute community presentations in Creole, the 30 or so attendees asked questions mostly about housing, internet connectivity, language barriers and COVID-19 vaccine barriers. Several said the assessment and recommendations from it offer a potential roadmap to address the issues affecting Haitian Americans.
“We’re happy with Yolette and what the HAA is doing,” Nicolas said. “This service [emergency preparedness] is sorely needed.”
A key test for the needs assessment and resulting recommendations came over the summer of 2021, just as HAA was getting ready to share the findings with the community. The taskforce activities and community emergencies both informed the assessment and prompted HAA to form an emergency action plan.
“The president [of Haiti] got assassinated and then within a month, there was an earthquake,” Blanc said. “We juggled from one traumatic event to another.”
In the next installment, we’ll take a look at the plan of action for future crises, including how to respond to a natural disaster, and ways to address the major issues identified.