Meet Your Neighbors

Naomi and her son can't find work, can't pay the rent, and can't get help, but they're grateful to be here

Haitians trying to establish themselves in the U.S. confront obstacles most other immigrant groups will never know, such as deliberately anti-Haitian immigration policies, social and educational services catering to Spanish-speakers and ignoring Kreyol-speakers, the ever-present subtleties of racism, and thousands of low-level jobs off-limits to Haitians because they've always been filled by Spanish-speaking immigrants. Naomi's U.S. citizenship has been no protection from or mitigation of the base poverty in which she lives.

She is hoping she'll get a call tomorrow morning from the home health-care agency she signed up with, telling her to report to work (usually to a private home) as a homemaker. Even one day a week of work now sounds good to her, even at no more than eight dollars an hour. "I never have a long job," she complains. "Sometimes I find work for three days a week. Last year I worked seven days a week -- but only for three months." If her 1986 Chevrolet station wagon isn't running, which it often isn't, she has to walk three blocks to the bus stop, wait under wilting sun or rain, and if her destination allows, hop on a jitney. Sometimes she has to take the bus and transfer, a round trip costing three dollars and taking up three hours in travel time.

This is no way to cover her $550 monthly rent, not to mention the phone and electricity bills. Naomi says she has been rejected for welfare or Medicaid benefits; she doesn't understand why. Antoine, who is studying to be an auto mechanic at the Miami Skill Center, has not been able to find a job. He is covered by Medicaid, though only until he turns 21 next year. Luckily for Naomi, so far anyway, God has granted her good health.

But she works hard at survival. To round up enough food for her and Antoine, Naomi must become a modern-day version of the hunter-gatherer. She finds free lunches, yet she pays in time, effort, and pride. Naomi has collected food donations at churches all over the county. She'll usually get nonperishable staples such as rice, oil, flour -- mainly canned foods. "A friend will call you and say, 'Can you go with me to this place to get food?'" she explains. "Sometimes people who have the same problem as me will call and invite me to go one day with them. The problem is if you go one time to a certain church you cannot go another time, per year. And they give the good things to the people in the church, not to the people on the outside."

Still she's not about to complain. She is vague about the apparently meager help she gets from her own congregation, a Church of God whose Haitian members are far from rich. Naomi was receiving food stamps this past March and April, then the stamps stopped. She doesn't know the reason, but she has another appointment scheduled for this month at the food-stamp office on NW 79th Street. "I have an interview," she clarifies. "They ask you a lot of questions, until you want to forget about food stamps."

Food vouchers, issued by the federal government and distributed through the United Way to community and charitable groups, are easier in some ways -- no third degree or endless paperwork -- but she never knows which agency is actually going to have any on hand when she needs them. Last week, after a volunteer at Sant La, a community-assistance center in Little Haiti, verified by phone that a Northwest Miami-Dade agency did have vouchers, Naomi rode out by bus only to be told the vouchers had been used up. Finally another office gave her $30 worth of food vouchers, good at Winn-Dixie. "The only problem with vouchers," Naomi says, "is they're just good at Publix or Winn-Dixie. For $60 at Publix you might come home with two bags. You can get more at a smaller market. So if you have food stamps you use them there." Just the other day, after perusing the various ad supplements stuffed in her mailbox, she drove up to North Miami and paid two dollars at President Market for a ten-pound bag of chicken legs and thighs.

One of the few things she feels deprived without is fresh juice, straight from the orange or grapefruit or pineapple. When she talks about such a luxury she seems to be inwardly licking her lips with pleasure. But the cost of even the cartons of fresh-from-concentrate juice at the supermarket is prohibitive. "Sometimes," Naomi acknowledges, "you'd like to buy real orange juice. But it costs $4 a gallon, so you buy powder and make a poor substitute for $2.50."

Naomi frowns, patting the coarse black hair that keeps trying to escape from her small ponytail. Yesterday was a depressing day. She went to several agencies to ask for help with her rent. Some of them had located food vouchers and rent assistance for her in the past. This time she got nowhere. Her eyes look reddened, as though she'd been squinting into the sun all day, which she had. "I was so tired," she recalls. "I didn't eat anything all day, and I felt weak. All week, every day, I take the jitney up to [the Center for Information and Orientation, a nonprofit agency affiliated with Notre Dame d'Haiti Catholic Church]. I spend two dollars [for the jitney] every day. Every day they tell me to bring documents, so I keep coming back with the papers they ask for. And yesterday I got there and she says we ran out of money; they told me that in 2003 they're going to have something."

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