Last year, 75-year-old Maria Cazañes was evicted from her Miami Beach apartment right before Hurricane Dorian.
Almost ten months later, she's still living in a Salvation Army shelter, with no money and nowhere else to go.
Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Gimenez reportedly called Cazañes' eviction a mistake. Her story helped push a proposed statewide moratorium on evictions during hurricanes, which failed after initial support. Friends and strangers raised around $6,500 on GoFundMe for Cazañes, her brother Ricardo, and her son Nelson to help them get back on their feet.
But despite the outpouring of support, the family's situation did not improve. Cazañes, who came to Miami from Cuba and never sought full citizenship, did not have a bank account, so under GoFundMe's policy, the money had to be returned.
Since being evicted, Cazañes has lived in a shelter in Allapattah with her son and brother, passed around from caseworker to caseworker and waiting in fear that the shelter might ask her to leave.
"Without any income, I'm just waiting for them to put me out on the street," she tells New Times in Spanish. "This place is a refuge, not a hotel."
Cazañes says she shares a room with two other women in the shelter, and her brother stays in the men's section. She says it's very different from when she lived in her own apartment — there's a schedule for when she can eat meals, and she can't be outside after 9 p.m.
A few weeks ago, Cazañes' son died of a stroke after a long stint in the hospital. Cazañes had a hard time visiting him because she didn't have a legal ID, so she couldn't enter and exit the hospital when the front desk asked for identification. She says she visited him as much as she could.
Without any money to her name, Cazañes was afraid she wouldn't even be able to bury her son because she couldn't pay the funeral costs. Her 81-year-old brother, who was previously her sole provider, has been out of work at his janitorial job in Miami Beach because he doesn't have transportation from the shelter in Allapattah.
Rafael Velasquez, a former candidate for Miami Beach city commission, has been working to assist Cazañes since she was evicted. He heard about her from a neighbor who had his phone number from when he was campaigning door to door. Velasquez tells New Times he was called in the middle of the night about an old woman whose belongings were being thrown into the street, and he started making calls to help her.
"I was about to go to bed, but I felt so bad for her I said, 'Let me see what I can do,'" Velasquez says. He now brings his daughters to visit Cazañes in the shelter, and in recent weeks, he helped her get a legal ID.
Velasquez tells New Times he helped start the initial GoFundMe campaign but didn't want the money to go to his own bank account so no one could accuse him of impropriety. He's since started a new crowdfunding campaign to support Cazañes and to help her find a home. Velasquez is currently working to get her a bank account so she can accept the donations.
"Now, we face the reality that she needs to move. She just needs a place to stay," he says.
Velasquez says he's been in contact with the office of Miami Beach Commissioner Steve Meiner, who promised he would try to help Cazañes. Meiner's office did not respond to a request for comment from New Times.
Officials from the Salvation Army shelter said they could not give details to New Times about Cazañes' case or her caseworker without express permission from Cazañes to divulge her personal information, which she preferred not to give.
Velasquez tells New Times he was able to help Cazañes pay to have her son cremated and get his death certificate. Now, with the new crowdfunding campaign, he hopes people will donate to help her find a home and right the wrong that was done to her ten months ago.
"She really needs any support she can get," Velasquez says. "I feel fortunate that I have the opportunity to share this experience with her."
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