Days after the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center, the South Bronx-based advocacy group Mothers on the Move (MOM) called a special meeting to discuss the aftermath of the tragedy. Members expressed an overwhelming desire to help the families of victims who lived in their community.
Members of MOM started a collection for the families of Antonio Melendez and Leobardo Lopez Pascual, employees of the Windows on the World restaurant who were killed when the towers were struck. Antonio lived with his wife and four children in the Hunts Point section of the Bronx. Leobardo, also a Hunts Point resident, left behind a wife and children in Puebla, Mexico. These men were among thousands of undocumented workers killed or displaced by the attacks. Community and advocacy groups like MOM, throughout New York City, are not only faced with the challenge of assisting these victims and their families; they are also coping with rash government cutbacks that they suspect will harm the city’s poorest populations.
Aid Available, But Limited
Julia Hernandez and Antonio Melendez married when they were teenagers in their Mexican hometown of Acatlan, and came to the United States in search of work and a better life for their children. For the past six years, he worked as a butcher at Windows on the World, making $340 a week. It wasn’t a huge sum for six people, but the family enjoyed their rituals of family meals, going to mass, and listening to Antonio play guitar. "He loved all kinds of music, bachata, merengue," Hernandez recalled. "He also loved to exercise. He even used to jog home from work." Julia is concerned that getting by on her own, as an illegal immigrant raising four children, will be a struggle. "When the assistance is finished, I will have to find work," she said. "I don’t know what will happen, and I am worried."
Undocumented and poor communities will be hit particularly hard since many are uninsured and ineligible for unemployment benefits. "What do they do now?" asked MOM member Diane Lowman. "There are people facing eviction and money hasn’t been distributed. Everything is just taking time and in the meantime families are just falling apart."
Community Groups Respond
Even though over $1 billion in aid has poured into the city, and is being doled out by dozens of charities, assistance for many undocumented workers is still lagging. Stepping into the breach, community groups are helping to walk victims through the thorny process of receiving aid. Some have set up their own relief stations. At the office of the Tepeyac Association, volunteers have helped hundreds of jobless apply for benefits. They are assisting undocumented workers in obtaining proof of employment, and helping them fill out applications for aid.
In northern Manhattan, Alianza Dominica, a social service agency, is providing case management and housing assistance, and scheduling mental health visits. A big part of the group’s job also includes encouraging immigrants to come forward, as many are fearful of revealing their illegal immigration status. Other immigrants fear a backlash against them, especially those from the Middle East and Muslim countries. "It’s not just a fear of ‘I’m undocumented,’" said Diaz of Alianza Dominica. "It’s a fear of, ‘immigrants did this and I’m an immigrant.’ There’s a lot of anxiety."
Preparing for Hard Times
The lines at the office of the Tepeyac Association aren’t getting any shorter. Brother Magallan has seen a stream of domestic and restaurant workers who have been laid off in recent weeks or who can only find part-time work. Many waiters have also requested help, because many downtown restaurants aren’t attracting customers.
Exacerbating the situation is that thousands of New Yorkers will be kicked off welfare rolls this December, when a five-year time limit expires. "It’s more difficult now for people on welfare to get jobs," said Henry Serrano, an organizer with Community Voices Heard, a welfare rights group. "It’s less likely that funding for welfare will be increased. All these ripple effects are going to affect poor people." Community organizers worry that their concerns will be even more neglected because of the current economic recession. In one of the most obvious setbacks, a coalition of community groups had been campaigning before September 11 to get revenue from the World Trade Center for low-income housing. Now, politicians are declaring that improvements in housing and education will have to be sacrificed to meet the costs of the attacks and the subsequent war.
"What became slowly clear to us is our communities are going to be more under siege in terms of budget cuts, shifting resources and immigration changes," said MOM director Helen Schaub. "It’s really going to effect poor communities like this one." Already, Mayor Giuliani has ordered 15 percent spending cuts for most city agencies to take effect immediately. The cuts will translate into a hiring freeze, layoffs and a loss in capital projects for parks and public housing.
At a recent forum about the Sept. 11 tragedy, the new challenges posed to communities seemed infinite. Conversation at the event ranged from handling city cutbacks, to protecting immigration rights, to educating constituents on Islam, to maintaining fundraising levels.
A few advocates also expressed worry that disparities between the city’s rich and poor could grow as the city pumps money into redevelopment of lower Manhattan, while cutting back services in poor communities. "The recovery plan is more corporate welfare than it is designed to help people who are underprivileged and on public assistance," commented one organizer.
Other organizers stressed the need to monitor distribution of aid. For groups like MOM that have made huge strides in the South Bronx, the prospect of losing ground and falling again on hard times is hard to stomach. "Over the last 10 years we’ve existed, we have had a lot of successes," said Lowman. "There’s been a little improvement in reading scores, and more and better housing. But it hasn’t been enough. There is concern because of cuts in services that we’ll lose ground." While the government pumps resources and energy into war, MOM wants to make sure their homefront battles aren’t forgotten. "We still have the same problems," says member Rita Veras. "We will continue to organize."