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Meet Your Neighbors One Year Later

One year ago New Times spilled a great deal of ink chronicling Miami's long, slow decline into poverty, the grim result of a combination of overwhelming immigration, middle-class flight, an overtaxed and unequal education system, massive job losses, and deteriorating housing. Since then city officials have taken small but encouraging steps toward reducing the burdens of the poor. A few success stories are beginning to emerge, but basically most poor people are about where they were last year, if not worse. Decent-paying jobs, health insurance, and affordable housing are all still scarce. Public education, transportation, and many other services are still inadequate to meet the needs of a teeming metropolis.

Last year New Times introduced you to a few of your neighbors -- people who live in parts of town you probably only drive through, quickly, and with the doors locked. We went back to visit some of them recently, to see how they're doing and whether they're even aware the city's leaders are finally trying to help them. What we found is that the perspective from city hall is very different from the view on the street.

Naomi

She lives in a tiny apartment in Little Haiti, constantly on the verge of losing her faith, if not in God then in humanity, as she struggles to find a job, a ride, a doctor. Last year at this time Naomi (she asked that her real name not be used) was out of work and two months behind on the rent because she used her last bit of money to bury her mother in Port-au-Prince. Although she's a United States citizen, has lived in Miami for ten years, and is involved with her church, Naomi's best job prospect was part-time work as a homemaker for a home healthcare agency. It paid eight dollars an hour but the work was inconsistent. Sometimes the agency would call her for five days of work in a week, sometimes two or three. And sometimes none. Her bleak prospects are not unusual in Little Haiti, home to about 24,000 people. It is plagued with both one of the highest unemployment rates in Miami-Dade County (19.4 percent) and a poverty rate greater than 50 percent.

Naomi had a beat-up and temperamental 1986 Chevrolet station wagon that often wouldn't run, so she was left at the mercy of the county bus service. Her $550 monthly rent was difficult to make and she had to get creative (food stamps, church donations) to find enough food for herself and her twenty-year-old son. He couldn't find work, but he was studying to be an auto mechanic at the Miami Skill Center. Now 21, he still hasn't found work, his mother says.

And their prospects are worse than ever. "My situation is not good," Naomi moans in broken English. "Not good. It's more bad than last year. I have an accident and I cannot walk."

For a time things had been looking up. Her part-time job cooking and cleaning for homebound people was steady enough that she was beginning to get ahead, if only marginally. She even thought she'd be able to scrape together the $87 fee to take the state-administered licensing exam to become a certified nursing assistant, which could mean greater job security.

Then something awful happened. This past May 27 Naomi was driving her Chevy to a job when she was hit by another driver. The driver didn't even stop. "My left leg was hit, and my chest," she recounts. After she got out of the hospital, Naomi was in physical therapy for her leg -- until the limited-assistance program that paid for it stopped. She lost her job, and she didn't have the money to repair her car. "I don't have collision insurance," she explains. "It just stays broken. I cry because I cannot pay my rent."

Fortunately Naomi's church took up a collection to help cover some basics. But the Haitian congregation is composed mostly of people not much further up the economic ladder than Naomi. They can't support her indefinitely. And just like last year, rental-assistance programs are few and their benefits difficult to obtain.

Now, one year later, Naomi is again two months behind on the rent, a fact her landlord reminds her of frequently. "I don't know where to go or who to ask," she sighs. "Sometime it's like I want to lose my mind."

Naomi's health is slowly improving. She can walk around now, if not as well as before. She wants to find another job, but it will have to be work that's not too physically taxing. "If I find something I can do, I will," she says. "We survive, only God knows how."

Has she heard of any of the city's antipoverty initiatives, such as the campaign to inform poor residents of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit? Naomi pauses, mentally running down a list of all the programs she's tried to tap into over the past year. "No, I haven't heard of it," she says. "You know something that could help me?"

Jeanette and Louise

Jeanette Kennedy and Louise Jones are neighbors in Town Park Plaza North, a HUD housing cooperative in Overtown at NW Nineteenth Street and Fifth Place. Town Park is at the edge of Miami's historic black district, right where it's cut by two massive highways -- I-95 and I-395. Louise is 62 years old, Jeanette just 45, but the two women have a lot in common. They're both grandmothers and both have lived in Overtown a long time. Louise has been here since 1957, Jeanette since 1972.

They watched as, one by one, the people and the jobs left. Businesses closed -- stores, theaters, nightclubs. Drugs and crime took over the vacant spaces that were left, accelerating Overtown's decline. But Louise stayed. While working as a laundress at a nursing facility, she raised six children, and some of her grandkids as well.

Jeanette also remained, raising her five children, and for several years those of a sister who had fallen prey to the drug addiction sweeping the neighborhood. Jeanette has worked as a nurse assistant at Mercy Hospital for 22 years. In the census tract around their little neighborhood, the unemployment rate in 1999 was almost nineteen percent, and more than half the households reported incomes of less than $15,000 per year, many bringing in less than $10,000.

Louise pays $475 per month for her four-bedroom home, which she shares with a daughter, a granddaughter stricken with lupus, and two toddlers, "my great-grandbabies." Her daughter, who has moved back home, is employed and finances have improved. Louise's granddaughter can't work because of her illness, so last year Louise's $865 monthly disability check, plus food stamps and Medicaid, were all they had to sustain the bare necessities. Other than that, Louise's life hasn't changed much in the last year. "It's no better," she laughs, "but it ain't got no worse."

Jeanette's job at the hospital pays relatively well, about $21,000 per year before taxes. But her three-bedroom home is often packed with all five children (ages 11 to 28), plus four small grandchildren. Of her offspring, only the eldest currently has a full-time job; she's a booking agent at the Royal Caribbean cruise line. A younger daughter has a part-time job at the YMCA and is going to school. "What can I say about my son?" Jeanette laments. "He says he's out looking, but if it were me, I'd have a job already. He's the only boy, the momma's boy even 26 years old. I spoil him too much." She is worried about this because the hospital just announced that in January it will close the inpatient clinic where she works in favor of an outpatient clinic. Positions were limited and Jeanette didn't get one of them. "I'm going to be looking for work," she adds. "They said they'll try to find me a position elsewhere in the hospital. I don't know what 'try' means."

Both women have noticed some recent physical changes to Overtown. Habitat for Humanity is building houses a few streets away. The city put fancy pavers along NW Ninth Street, and someone painted the underpass on NW Third Avenue, next to the flowers planted by FIU students. They wonder when and how I-395 will be lowered and perhaps rerouted through their neighborhood. If it's not done right, it could end up pushing out the last of Overtown's stakeholders. "We're hearing talk about it," Louise says. "We don't know."

Neither lady is aware of the federal Earned Income Tax Credit being promoted by the city, nor of the loan program for small businesses. "That's a new one on me," Jeanette remarks. "Rayvon's grocery store on Fourteenth Street closed down just last month. That place been there forever. I used to go there and get candy when I was a girl. He coulda used some help."


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