Natural disaster and manmade recession reveal strengths and needs of Haitian diaspora: strong organizations and networks are critical for effective community and economic development.
South Florida began 2010 with unemployment well above the national average and general economic and emotional fatigue after 24 months of continuous foreclosure activity. Then suddenly on January 12, 2010, a massive 7.0 earthquake leveled much of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, leaving the city in rubble and resulting in an estimated 230,000 deaths. South Florida, with its large Haitian community and the nearest air- and seaports to the Caribbean, was directly affected by the earthquake and will remain closely linked to the rebuilding and stabilization of Haiti for many years to come.
A Deep and Strong Diaspora
The needs and challenges of immigrant communities vary; targeted approaches that consider these factors are most effective. There are several Haitian enclaves around the United States, the largest of which is in South Florida. Although many Haitian immigrants have made great economic strides over time and attained a comfortable quality of life, several areas of low-income and unskilled or under-educated Haitians living under difficult circumstances still exist: in the region. The devastating earthquake in Haiti has made the tough economy in South Florida even tougher for the Haitian-American community, especially those households that were already stretched to capacity. Some Haitian-Americans have taken in family members in need or are sending money to family and friends in Haiti to help them meet basic needs and to aid with home rehabilitation and medical treatment.
"The Haitian community is very diverse and faces complex challenges," explains Gepsie Metellus, executive director of Sant La, a Haitian community service organization in Miami. She points out that the earthquake has affected the Haitian diaspora in many ways. The strong entrepreneurial spirit of Haitians has produced myriad Haitian-owned businesses throughout the United States, and a growing number of Haitian politicians are now holding municipal and state office. But the increased needs of Haitian immigrants, urgent demands of a devastated homeland, and ongoing challenges of a weakened U.S. economy have combined to produce significant challenges for Haitians in the United States.
Matching Hope with Resources
Among other strong characteristics that global observers have witnessed in the Haitian-American community during recent events are resiliency and a strong sense of hope. These attributes have inspired an outpouring of support throughout South Florida, particularly by the nonprofit and social service agencies that have had long-standing relationships with the Haitian community.
These community-based organizations serving Haitian-American populations have become an essential lifeline for the community. They are helping those who have no one else to turn to, and are relieving some of the pressure on individuals and families affected financially by the earthquake. According to Metellus, Sant La had already seen a dramatic increase in people looking for employment and help with living expenses prior to the earthquake. "Helping undocumented Haitians with food, housing, and medical needs is especially challenging," she says, "because they cannot benefit from many formal subsidy programs."
Immediately following the disaster, Sant La and similar organizations became communication hubs within the Haitian community--a central source of information, logistics, and counseling. The Knight. Foundation awarded $600,000 in grants to fund increased services for Haitians in Miami-Dade County. Included in these grants was a $100,000 award given to the United Way of Miami-Dade. Other donors matched this grant, allowing the United Way to launch the $300,000 Haiti Recovery Fund to help Miami-Dade residents affected by the earthquake. Further north, the United Way of Broward County launched Project S.H.A.R.E.--Strategic Haitian Aid and Relief Efforts--in May. This organization leads fund-raising efforts and coordinates programmatic response to the needs of Haitian families in Broward. In part, these programs provide free counseling services to help Haitians apply for U.S. Temporary Protected Status (TPS), a status that on Jan. 14, 2010, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security granted Haitian nationals living in the United States before the earthquake.
The United Way of Miami-Dade also launched An n Avanse--which in English means "Let's move forward"--a coalition of 30 community partners created to address the needs of Haitians in the community. Under the volunteer leadership of Gloria Romero Roses, a Miami loaned executive at the United Way, An n Avanse is working to create business networks to bolster the growth of Haitian-owned businesses based in the area. Last July, Roses supervised a community survey to identify gaps in meeting the needs of low-income Haitians in Miami. She acknowledges that many needs existed before the earthquake but the reallocation of resources and influx of refugees have created service gaps. Armed with knowledge gleaned from the survey, Roses and Avanse will help develop a programmatic response to promote efficiency and increase impact.
Sant La, Atlanta Fed, and Others Help Haitians Achieve Legal Status, Other Benefits
When approved for TPS status, Haitians can obtain U.S.-issued identification, request an individual tax identification number, and enter the formal workforce and economy--which also means being eligible for unemployment benefits and having access to banking and other financial services. With South Florida's unemployment rate around 12 percent for the summer of 2010, more than 4,000 individuals came to Sant La during June alone to use the center's computer center to file or update their unemployment compensation claims. Staff also counseled more than 1,800 individuals looking for work. "TPS has led to a further increase in job seekers at Sant La," Metellus says, "and there are simply not enough jobs in the South Florida market to absorb new entrants into the employment pool."
To encourage Haitians to establish relationships with regulated financial institutions, the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta is working with local financial institutions and partnering on community-based initiatives. The Atlanta Fed is also involved in efforts to encourage these Haitians to participate in financial education and counseling programs that will help them avoid high-priced or predatory alternative-service providers.
Haitian-American professionals are lending their skills and resources to rebuilding efforts in Haiti and have also refocused attention on helping low-income Haitians succeed in the workforce. Francois Guillaume, executive director of the Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce of Florida, based in Miami, says, "Haitian businesses endure the same challenges as all other businesses in the U.S. But [Haitian] business owners are also dealing with their personal responsibilities to help family and businesses back home."
In May 2010, Guillaume partnered with the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce to host a conference highlighting business opportunities resulting from the reconstruction effort in Haiti. Guillaume points out that many South Florida businesses will have to be bonded and build reserves to secure large government contracts. Nevertheless, Haitian businesses can use their unique advantages to offer established business channels and contacts, a working knowledge of the culture and business permitting process, and, of course, the language.
In It for the Long Haul
Despite some delays in the funding and implementation of a reconstruction initiative in Haiti, local entities continue to focus on the accomplishments and opportunities for the Haitian community in the United States. Long-term commitments by partners such as the Atlanta Fed, among many others, bring a wealth of resources to targeted neighborhoods through coordinated coalitions. Well-managed and comprehensive initiatives focused on the Haitian-American community allow local public and private partners to participate easily and see instant benefits.
This article was written by Ana Cruz-Taura, Regional Community Development Director with the Miami Branch of the Atlanta Fed.
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|Publication:||Partners in Community and Economic Development|
|Date:||Mar 10, 2011|
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