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

Catholic Charities told her the same thing, as did other agencies whose names she can't remember. Now, say workers at Sant La, there just isn't any rent-assistance money anywhere. The county's Community Action Agency does pay some rent in emergencies, but only after the landlord has gone to court to obtain a three-day eviction notice. Ironically the reason Naomi wasn't able to have her rent paid this time was the fault of her landlord, who refused until it was too late to sign a notarized statement the organizations required before they would assist her.

Naomi dreams of a steady job with long hours. Many of her friends have become licensed as certified nursing assistants (CNA), and she knows her prospects would greatly improve if she did the same. CNAs don't make much more money than homemakers, but they're in demand at nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. "I just need to take the state [CNA licensing] test," Naomi explains. "Then I'm going to work sixteen hours a day."

She has been taking classes to prepare her for the state-administered CNA licensing exam, but that costs $87. She'll just have to wait until other expenses are taken care of. Assuming they are. "We went last November, December, and January without a phone," Naomi admits. Her telephone service was cut off again a week ago. She lifts an index finger, taps at an eyebrow. "When the electric bill comes, I have to think who can I ask to give me twenty dollars to pay it. I go to different people. I guess I'll get twenty dollars from one, another fifteen dollars. It's humiliating but I accept it because I don't know what else to do."

Not that she isn't always mindful her life may have been saved by coming here when she did, in 1993, during the violent aftermath of the military coup that deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in September 1991. "When I was in my country I was [politically] involved," Naomi says. "I was a delegate for the electoral council to oversee the election, so after the coup everyone knew I was in danger. For three months I went into hiding in Jacmel, my mother's hometown. Then my family sent me and my son to Miami."

In Miami Naomi and Antoine stayed for a few weeks with a friend of the family, then moved into a Little Haiti apartment on NE Second Avenue not far from where they now live. In late 2000 her mother came to live with them, but Naomi finally sent Rosalia back to Haiti after less than a year, in July 2001. "Because I cannot support her," Naomi says. "If I could, maybe she wouldn't have died. She was nine months without medical care when we started looking for a doctor to see her. She could walk, but she was sick. Everywhere we went they ask if she has papers. They tell us we have to pay. Finally I realize it's impossible. My mother said, 'Why don't you just take me back home.'" Naomi adds: "Life is very hard for Haitians in this country."

Rosalia died almost a year later, at the same time Naomi was desperate to pay her rent for May and June. She recalled hearing Leonie Hermantin of Sant La speak at a neighborhood crime-watch meeting one night several weeks earlier, and she remembered Hermantin urging her listeners to call her if they didn't know where else to go for help. Naomi figured that described her exactly. "I could not go nowhere," says Naomi. "That's why I call Ms. Hermantin."

Sant La found enough cash for Naomi to pay a month's rent, but it went instead to buy the blue dress and two round-trip plane tickets to Port-au-Prince. Now no one can find any more rent-assistance money and she's in real trouble.

For one night almost every week Naomi steps outside her warm, dark apartment to patrol Little Haiti with other crime-watch volunteers. She speaks to the residents about how to protect themselves and their property. She tells them to look out for their neighbors, where to call if they see something suspicious. She learned all this in crime-watch classes given by the Miami Police Department, and she's proud of a certificate of appreciation awarded her for this work, back in 1996. The certificate is signed by then-police Chief Donald Warshaw, before he became Miami city manager and then went to prison for stealing money from a charity. Naomi is glad to see wrongdoing punished; she's grateful to live where even a flawed justice system exists. Nevertheless she has fallen by the wayside in the world's most powerful nation. "Give me a job and I work hard," she says. "But there's too much people looking for a job. I've looked everywhere for help. Some people try to help me, but not the people who can help."

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