|Miami Social Services Community Feeling Tremors from Haiti Earthquake |
|The Haitian Neighborhood Center Sant La, the nexus for support and relief in Little Haiti, is bursting at the seams: both floors filled, not a vacant chair, lines of clients seeking services. Even before the deadliest earthquake in modern history devastated Haiti on Jan. 12, the center was a busy hub, doing its best to meet the needs of a community struggling to gain some footing in the swirling economic downturn. Now, just more than a month after the disaster, the tremors of need are bending the center to a near breaking point. |
“The earthquake has exacerbated the needs, that’s clear,” said Gepsie Metellus, executive director for Sant La. “Yet there were already the underlying issues right here – our own economy, people wanting to work, needing to work, but not able to find jobs. We’re doing all we can to identify their needs, to give them a leg up so they can survive.”
|Charles Cazeau, director of employment services, |
counsels Nadia Omega.
Just as before the disaster, Mondays and Tuesdays are the designated days for Haitian Americans to seek much needed benefits – KidCare applications, Medicaid claims, job and financial counseling, housing and more – at this nonprofit funded by The Children’s Trust.
Yet the needs are far greater now. Many Miami Haitians have welcomed victims of the earthquake into their homes. Metellus told of one man who opened his home to 10 earthquake victims, several of them children. With more to feed, the stress and pressures mount – and relatives and loved ones in Haiti are appealing for help, too.
Three days after the earthquake, in a dramatic policy shift, the U.S. government conferred Temporary Protective Status (TPS) for Haitians in the United States. Haitians in the country at the time of the quake are now eligible to remain legally for the next 18 months. An estimated 68,000 Haitians in South Florida are expected to apply. Sant La, with the help of law students from local colleges, opened its doors twice a week to counsel applicants on the application process; the center offers 20 appointment slots on each of those days. To meet the tremendous demand, beginning Feb. 20 Sant La will offer Saturday clinics.
The situation borders on overwhelming and yet the knowledge of suffering and devastation in Haiti serves to keep Miami Haitians afloat.
“We’re making the best of it – everybody is chipping in – and at the end of the day we realize that we have things here that the folks in Haiti don’t have,” Metellus said. “We have the mindset that we have nothing to complain about, that this too shall pass.”
|The Sant La waiting room is busy with clients beginning|
from early in the morning and throughout the day.
The Florida Immigrant Advocacy Center (FIAC) also has its hands full, straining to provide services and to serve as a clearinghouse of information and services for the Haitian community in Miami.
“The numbers of those applying for our legal services is overwhelming now,” said Deborah Lee, an attorney with the nonprofit. “It’s hard enough to deal with the day-to-day situations and on top of that now there’s enormous need for emergency services, such as filling out TPS applications.”
FIAC’s Immigrant Children's Legal and Service Partnership (ICLASP), a partnership funded by The Children’s Trust that has become a national model, provides essential services to unaccompanied immigrant children, from birth to 18, who are caught in a legal web while they await resolution of their cases with the government. As part of the partnership, seven community partners provide rights' education and individual legal consultations for each child held in detention at one of three federally contracted FIAC shelters in Miami; representation in immigration and dependency cases, trauma resolution and more.
Because of its focus on children, Lee explained that FIAC is reaching out to providers and partners in the community who already have contact with Haitian families in an attempt to locate orphans. These children may be newly arrived victims of the earthquake or children already in Miami who lost one or possibly both parents in the disaster – or others pushed from homes because of the dire situation and who are now neglected or abandoned.
|Sant La, created in 2000, serves as a one-stop referral,|
education and neighborhood resource center.
“We’re trying to coordinate both short- and long-term needs and to make sure the children are not forgotten,” Lee said. Each individual in a family must apply for TPS status, and historically children don’t apply. Lee said FIAC is focused on making sure that doesn’t happen, as the benefits of legal status are crucial to these children.
Even weeks after the earthquake, the situation remains confusing. Miami-Dade County schools have welcomed upwards of 500 students from Haiti, and FIAC’s shelters are providing services to more children, yet the prototype differs from what the nonprofit has seen in the past. Lee explained that many children currently in its shelters are in the “pipeline” for adoption.
“A lot of the children in this first wave had already been working with social services agencies – they already have an adopted family waiting for them,” Lee said. “The earthquake expedited the process, and they’re moving through our shelters.”
The Children’s Trust has engaged in talks with FIAC to expand the scope of services it can offer and its role in the longer-term relief effort.
Cheryl Little, executive director, said that an emerging role for FIAC has been to coordinate assistance and to serve as a clearinghouse, both locally and statewide, for information regarding legal and other services for the South Florida Haitian community.
Tessa Painson, a program director for Catholic Charities of the Archdioses of Miami, echoed the burden that relief agencies are experiencing.
“We have noticed a greater demand for food, clothing, and for information on immigration and legal services,” Painson said.
Painson pointed to the large numbers – as many as 25,000 – of repatriated U.S. citizens, many of them the U.S. children of Haitian parents, who have returned in the wake of the devastation.
These children and others have been generously welcomed into Miami homes, but their presence means many additional expenses for the families housing them.
“We were seeing an increase eight months ago, but now more and more families are coming in facing foreclosure, unable to get employment,” said Painson, pointing out that many, even if they surpass the language barrier, have limited job skills.
Catholic Charities is supplying food vouchers and has committed additional funds to helping the community.
“But we know that the amount of money itself is not going to be enough to allow us to face the demand that we have now. We’re hoping that somewhere, someone will take into consideration the amount of assistance that is needed for those who are here,” Painson said.