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The Richmond Times-Dispatch

Hardship Seen Among Hispanics

By Robin Farmer

August 10, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved.

Jose Medina and Johanna Santiago left Ponce, Puerto Rico, last fall to find work and live with a relative until they could get their own place.

Life had other plans.

The couple stayed with Johanna's mother, Maria Santiago, in a two- bedroom apartment in Henrico County for several months while they sought jobs. When Maria's landlord found out about the extra tenants, which included the couple's two children, she was more lenient than most. She told her they could stay two more weeks, max.

Not wanting to cause hardship for Johanna's mom, the family had no choice but to move into unfamiliar territory: homelessness.

"It was hard at first to find a shelter where we could be together," Johanna, 26, said through an interpreter as she and Jose, 28, sat in the living room of their tidy Henrico apartment one muggy spring afternoon.

Johanna said a woman they met at Care-A-Van, a mobile health clinic that serves many Hispanic families, steered them to CARITAS, a major provider of emergency shelter for homeless families in the region. The shelter allows men to stay with their families.

"At CARITAS, no one there speaks Spanish. My mother speaks English, and she translated everything for us," Johanna said. Sometimes, staff would leave notes for Maria so that she could tell her daughter and son-in-law what the staff needed.

Lack of bilingual staff is one reason some Hispanics and agency providers believe that the Hispanic homeless population is underestimated and underserved. The number of Hispanics residing in the Richmond area has more than doubled since 1990.

"A lot of families would qualify for homeless programs but don't because they aren't comfortable with shelters" or their immigration status, Johanna said.

"I know people who live 12 to 15 . . . in one house," Jose added.

But the language barrier is not the only reason that it is difficult to gauge the extent of homelessness among Hispanics.

"They usually don't access the shelters . . . because, culturally, families take care of families," said Martha Muguira, executive director of family and community services at St. Joseph's Villa, a charitable human-services organization with the primary focus of serving children with special needs.

"Sometimes, you have five families to a home and some are illegals, and they won't access services because it will be hurtful," Muguira said. There are also "a lot of single men who are in difficult situations," as many live in crowded conditions to send money to their families in Puerto Rico.

Muguira's program, Flagler Family Community Services, offers support services to formerly homeless families for up to two years. It helped Johanna and Jose with the deposit on their apartment near the airport. They moved there in March after spending six weeks at the shelter.

The program provides them a family-life counselor, Kim Harrison, who is bilingual and served as the interpreter for this article.

"We do home visits, goal setting, budgeting, problem solving as things arise. We focus on the kids' education and urge [parents] to continue their education," said Harrison, who works with 12 families.

The program, which costs about $12,000 per family, currently serves 27 adults and 52 children. It also provides clothing and furniture.

Its success rate - those finding permanent housing - is 96 percent.

This fiscal year, 87 adults and 162 children have been served by St. Joseph's Villa programs designed for homeless families.

Data are hard to come by for the homeless in the Richmond area and even more so for homeless Hispanics, said Marc Leslie, research and data analyst for Homeward, a regional coalition of service agencies for the homeless.

"I can't say it's growing, because I don't think anyone counted Hispanic families two years ago," Leslie said, adding that there is a general need for interpreters. "The human-services industry in Richmond is feeling an increase from people who speak Spanish only."

Homeward is working on a computerized system so that the number of area homeless will be more accurate and not include duplicates, he said.

Still, staff members at shelters say that in the past year, they have been seeing more families - and have been turning more away.

"Our turn-aways aren't through the roof for our families, but they are consistently high," said Karen J. Stanley, executive director of CARITAS.

"We feel like it's an unduplicated number, between 500 and 700 a quarter."

Turn-aways are up 6 percent from this time last year, she said. But of those served, or even turned away, less than 1 percent are Hispanic, she said.

Maria Santiago, Johanna's mom, can offer insight.

"What we really need are people like Kim who are the translators who want to help Hispanic people. I speak English, but a lot of Spanish people, they don't know English and they feel in the middle of nowhere."

Another Spanish-speaking woman who works with Care-A-Van helped Johanna and Jose get to CARITAS, Maria said.

Word of mouth within the Hispanic community about resources will probably increase the number being helped, said Harrison, the family- life counselor.

"It takes awhile for a community to trust an agency or an individual. It's there, but it's that connection" that makes a difference, she said. "It takes some time to create that."

Many think of homeless people as living on the streets or in their cars, but a large number are families living with relatives or friends in quarters that are temporary or inadequate for their needs, Harrison said.

"I see it as a pretty large problem. The Hispanic community doesn't see it because they have a place to stay," she said.

Added Muguira of St. Joseph's Villa: "We're having staff go out to the Hispanic community, the churches, and talk to people like the Medinas so we can . . . let our services be known and have staff there that is bilingual to help facilitate the transition from a deplorable situation into a better one."

Johanna and Jose, who are each working to pay their $478 monthly rent and other bills, have already referred another Hispanic family.

"We're interviewing them right now," Muguira said. "They may be our next family."

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