Servicing Haitian New Yorkers after the storm

For some Haitian groups, crisis response spurred new thinking on addressing NYC community’s longer term needs.

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 support available. 

BROOKLYN — About one year ago, a magnitude 7.2 earthquake struck Haiti on a bright summer morning. Fifteen-hundred miles away in New York, the Haitian American Alliance of New York (HAA) joined dozens of other organizations that sprang into action to help. Within days, HAA had spearheaded a collaboration that helped collect and ship essential supplies and donations, working mostly through virtual meetings as Covid-19 was still prevalent.

The relatively swift response was due in part to HAA’s 77-page crisis response plan for the Haitian community, a requirement of a community assessment conducted after the pandemic with funding from the New York City Emergency Management Department.

“All of us were affected by the earthquake automatically, even though it happened in Haiti, and we [went] into emergency gear,” Yolette Williams, HAA’s executive director and president, said. “We put a lot of community leaders together, decided where we would send the money, which organizations we were going to support and who would be going.” 

The collective effort helped Project Medishare, a designated HAA partner, provide nearly 200,000 pounds of medical and essential supplies for those injured, including medication, 7,000 food and hygiene kits, and mobile health clinics. However, for some Haitian organizers, the collaboration process left an impression on how to serve the community differently to meet long-term goals, said Williams – herself included. Now, she said, Haitian community leaders seem more open to strategize around the systemic, economic issues impacting Haitians’ day-to-day lives. 

For officials with the Department of Emergency Management, NYCEM, the change in outlook aligns with their goal to help the 10 communities selected “be prepared and resilient.” Developing the five-step process required of HAA and the organizations funded to learn about and plan ahead themselves appears to be working.

“We can’t do anything with their feedback,” said Moriah Washington, director of community engagement at NYCEM. “It is about them knowing how to utilize this assessment to get the information to their key players and stakeholders.”

For HAA, organizing a Haitian leaders summit in May to help build “more empowered and cohesive Haitian diaspora” was another outcome of the study. But despite the effort, funding appears to be far off to support the longer-term direction the study unveiled is needed to alleviate the major issues.

Shifting to longer-term solutions

The shift from emergency response to longer-term strategy is not unique to the Haitian community. Among the groups funded by the same grant as HAA — Emergency Management’s Strengthening Communities Through Recovery Program — several have published their own assessments and plans to address the deeply-rooted challenges in their respective communities.

One, the Academy of Medical & Public Health Services, plans to partner with city agencies such as the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene on advancing health equity for immigrants in southwest Brooklyn, the community they serve. AMPHS also wants to address maternal health by establishing collaborations between local groups and families. 

Another group that conducted a study, the Far Rockaway/Arverne Nonprofit Coalition, FRANC for short, now aims to focus youth in its Queens, New York neighborhood and developing community leadership programs.  

“[Our] committee is so appreciative of the training and support offered through the [program],” said Denean Ferguson, co-Chair at FRANC. “Developing written emergency response strategies will support interconnectivity and codify roles and responsibilities of our members, and has given the opportunity and tools to better prepare our Rockaway community.”

Study triggers longer-term view  

In the Haitian community, Williams came to see the crisis response as only the beginning of her organization’s work to connect groups to each other to advance Haitian New Yorkers’ interests, she said. With others already providing direct services to individuals, the HAA took on the role of assembling leaders, with help from The Haitian Times among others, for the leadership summit in May.  

“We absolutely need to do work for long-term programs that are not just emergencies,” Williams said. “There’s been so much work to be done for emergencies that there’s not much in place for the long term.”

Attendees of the virtual meeting, which included such prominent Haitian figures as author Edwidge Danticat, said organizations like HAA are vital to facilitating the immigrant community’s advancement as it continues to grow and expand across the U.S. Some promised to influence national policy better by lobbying Washington for a “fair share” of tax dollars for Haitian-Americans. Others discussed the importance of connecting various U.S.-based institutions working to help Haiti. Still others insisted that prominent Haitians needed media training to learn how to represent the community’s interests well.

Judite Blanc, an assistant professor at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, was among the attendees. As principal investigator for The Haitian Well-Being Study, a current research project, her work aims to surface factors impacting mental health for Haitian-Americans and those in Haiti.

“We could not find much data about mental health and Haitian-Americans in New York, but after we did the needs assessment, it reinforced my passion to find this data,” Blanc said. “I worked closely with Yolette to come up with a new project for the Haitian population and we decided that HAA would definitely be included as one of the partners.” 

At next year’s summit, Williams said, HAA plans to focus on wealth building within the community to address the underlying economic hardship that exacerbates the nine other needs. If, that is, the group can raise the funds — a competitive undertaking featuring scores of other groups, Haitian and non-Haitian nonprofits, seeking support.

In New York City in particular, HAA and local churches plan to continue connecting Haitan residents with city agencies to address the major issues cataloged in the community assessment. They are tackling curbing eviction as a housing issue and reducing cases of diabetic comas, a major healthcare disparity. Other priorities include improving people’s quality of life by assisting with complex tasks such as opening bank accounts, paying for utilities, accessing computer training programs and assisting Haitian residents with disabilities.

Junie Clauther-Hodge, founder of JC HOMES, a Queens-based housing assistance organization, said Williams helped them organize a housing workshop at Tilden High School in East Flatbush based on her knowledge of the need. The session helped reach nearly 40 families, including some who had been doubling up or are undocumented, and to apply for low-income housing.

“Yolette has been very instrumental to our organization’s work to help as many people get housing as possible,” Clauther-Hodge said. “We were able to assist a lot of people to apply for housing. Many families are in dire need of their own homes and do not know about services that the City provides for people in their situation, such as Housing Connect.”

One of the organizations that collaborated with HAA to send supplies to Haiti following last year’s earthquake, Fernande Valme Ministries, said they were able to send 45 containers of supplies to Haiti. Gerald Valme, vice president of the organization, said the experience with HAA was meaningful in itself. Now, Valme said, more work is needed to provide education and support, particularly for recent refugees needing help with Temporary Protected Statuspaperwork. 

“The impact of her study was tremendous, because we can help people both materially and spiritually,” Valme said. “People were desperate and there was no hope.”

Funding for new programs needed

On the heels of the 2021 earthquake in Haiti, HAA and others found themselves again using the crisis response plan when 14,000 Haitians ended up under a bridge in Del Rio, Texas in September. 

In June, the city announced a $1.6 million grant to help seven Haitian nonprofits help such newcomer or undocumented Haitian immigrants arriving in the city with case management regarding legal services to help new immigrants. HAA was not one of the recipients, despite its role, Williams said, in helping a local church assist nearly 200 families from Del Rio settle in New York.

“We were hoping to have funding, because the funding is really to help migrants and asylum seekers,” Williams said. “I really don’t know how much funding I would want HAA to get versus what we currently receive.”

That’s no surprise though. Experts said organizations serving immigrants often do not receive enough funds for short- or long-term support.

“A consistent theme among immigrant organizations is that they are operating on a shoestring budget and are just scraping to get by,” said Els de Graauw, associate professor of political science at Baruch College. “The demand for their services is often far greater than what they can provide.”

De Graauw advocates for nonprofit organizations to work with local city officials to ensure new programs are properly created. 

Similarly, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found, cross-sector partnerships and collaborations can best help ensure immigrant-serving groups continue to operate successfully when new needs arise. 

Macollvie J. Neel contributed to this report.

In the next installment, we’ll take a look at Haitian Americans United for Progress –  a group that grew from a loose coalition of concerned Haitian leaders to a $5 million nonprofit over four decades that services Haitians in Queens and Brooklyn. 

This story was originally published in The Haitian Times