Boston aids Haiti earthquake victims
Last year in Boston, where emergency food providers were already feeling the strain from increased demand during the recession, city officials and community groups scrambled to meet a significant uptick in emergency food requests from an influx of refugees following the devastating January 2010 earthquake in Haiti. More than one year later, the city still is struggling to feed the hungry.
Boston’s Haitian population is the third largest in the U.S. after Miami and New York, says Katleen Jeanty, Ethnic Press Liaison with the Boston Mayor’s Press Office, who also staffs the Mayor’s Office of New Bostonians (MONB) that works with the city’s immigrant population. After the earthquake, the MONB office was flooded with requests for food, shelter, clothing and mental health services for newly arrived and traumatized Haitian immigrants, as well as for existing Haitian-American residents whose household resources were stretched beyond the limit spending scarce funds to help their loved ones in Haiti, Jeanty says.
Significant confusion over immigration status and a general distrust of government by Haitian immigrants compounded the problem of getting aid to families in need, Jeanty says. With various categories of permissions to enter the country, many people found they could legally enter the United States but were not entitled to work or receive food stamps or housing benefits.
The refugees’ tenuous immigration status created additional financial stress on their families who had to provide for them. “Those that came in without the necessary status to get all the benefits available did not have access to much,” Jeanty says. The food pantries, she says, were a notable exception, as most just require proof that a family member lives in the vicinity of the area the pantry serves.
City officials first became aware of the increased hunger demand in March 2010 from the Boston Public Health Commission’s Healthy Baby/Healthy Child food pantry on the city’s Mattapan health campus, says Jim Greene, director of Boston’s Emergency Shelter Commission. Greene says the commission worked with the Boston-based non-profit Greater Boston Food Bank, with which it has an existing contract, to administer an additional $15,000 in hunger grants to 10 selected food pantries in Haitian-American communities.
City officials learned early on that it was important to incorporate area churches in their assistance efforts because, while many Haitians would not visit government offices, they would go to church, Jeanty says. “Their faith is what sustains them and keeps them going,” she says.
It has been more than a year since the earthquake, but Jeanty says the tug of war between meeting the basic needs of Boston’s Haitian community while staying mindful of efficiently using constituents’ tax dollars remains challenging. “There is an exorbitant amount of need, but still not enough resources,” she says.