Meet Your Neighbors
Naomi wouldn't be quite so desperate now if she hadn't spent her rent money to bury her mother. But what choice did she have? Naomi is sure her 85-year-old mother, Rosalia, could have lived longer if she'd been able to get medical attention, either in Miami or in her native Port-au-Prince. But here the clinics wanted to see money and sometimes immigration documents, neither of which Rosalia had, and in Haiti hospitals stand useless for lack of everything from antibiotics and syringes to running water and electricity.
So Rosalia died this past July 3 in her family's apartment in Port-au-Prince, and Naomi, the eldest of her seven children and the only one living in Miami, was expected to oversee funeral arrangements. She and a friend went to one of those factory-fashion outlets on NW Twentieth Street and bought Rosalia her burial dress, a shiny-blue, two-piece ensemble, the kind of modest yet festive attire women wear to church when church is their life. Rosalia had been an evangelical missionary since the age of 25 and devoted most of her time to her Pentecostal church in Port-au-Prince. The dress cost $70, but how could Naomi scrimp on her mother's last outfit?
"She asked to be buried in a blue dress," Naomi offers, smoothing her own cheap print blouse. "Blue means hope."
Naomi, despite her own strong religious convictions, is constantly on the verge of losing hope. She is a United States citizen and is involved in Little Haiti community activities, especially crime watch. But she hasn't had a steady job in more than a year, and now her landlord, who inconveniently lives next door to her two-bedroom apartment, is treating her like a criminal. She has a rent problem.
"I owe two months now," Naomi confesses solemnly in accented English, "and my landlord said he's going to take action if I don't pay." (Naomi requested that the real names of her and her family not be published, so pseudonyms are used for this story.) She is sitting on the edge of a black, cloth-covered sofa in her living room, every wall painted a peachy pink. Occasionally she fans herself with a Rhythm magazine, no doubt the property of her twenty-year-old son Antoine, who's at vocational school. In the waning light of early evening the room is dim; to save electricity she has no lamps lit, no air conditioning running. White filigree curtains, beige with age, cover the barred windows. A ceiling fan whirs silently, barely rustling the leaves and petals of a silk poinsettia arrangement on the coffee table. Atop an ancient console TV, picture tube burned out, sits a telephone connected to an answering machine, also not working since phone service was cut off a few weeks ago. On a nearby shelf a six-year-old framed color photograph shows Antoine in slacks and sport jacket, resting his arm on Naomi's shoulder. She's smiling proudly in a dress with a lacy white collar. Mother and son are the same height in the photo; today Antoine towers over Naomi.
Outside, a red pickup truck loaded with plastic bags bulging with fruits and vegetables makes its way down the street. As the vehicle passes Naomi's house she watches the owner at the wheel, announcing in Kreyol from a PA system: "I have carrots today, I have eggplant, I have a large selection of produce you can't buy cheaper in the market." The truck and the booming voice stop every couple of houses and one or two people stroll over to inspect the wares. They seem to know what they want, haggling is brief, and they disappear back into their homes with a bag or two. As they do, spicy, meaty cooking smells occasionally escape into the humid air.
"It's true. His prices are usually less than in the markets," Naomi confirms. "But I don't buy from him. It's still a lot of money."
For someone like Naomi, who earns anywhere from zero to $900 per month working temp jobs as a homemaker (an unskilled helper for homebound patients), fresh produce is indeed a luxury. Yet in Little Haiti, one of the poorest sections of the poorest city in the nation, Naomi's plight is nothing out of the ordinary. Lying southeast of Liberty City, Little Haiti is home to about 24,000 people, most of them born in Haiti. This neighborhood is the first stop in Miami for the majority of newly arrived immigrants from that enthralling, tormented nation on the island of Hispaniola. It's a community with one of the highest unemployment rates in Miami-Dade County (19.4 percent), according to a May 2002 study by Florida International University's Metropolitan Center. More than half of Little Haiti's households subsist below the poverty line, as figured by the same study, and almost a third reported household incomes of less than $10,000. All the public schools in Little Haiti received the lowest possible rating in 2001; almost 100 percent of the elementary school students qualify for free-lunch programs, compared with 56 percent of students in the county as a whole.
New arrivals to Little Haiti work hard to save enough money to buy a house somewhere else, usually to the north, places like Miami Shores, El Portal, North Miami, and North Miami Beach. Even if a Haitian couple has to work two minimum-wage jobs apiece and enlist the help of siblings and cousins, and in spite of political and social-services systems stacked against them, they'll manage to scrape together a down payment on an American dream. But those who succeed the fastest are most often the ones with advantages such as an education, legal residency or citizenship, and family members able to lend support.
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."
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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