The D.C. Office of Latino Affairs yesterday accused a city Hispanic agency of squandering more than $1 million in U.S. funds that were to be used to help resettle Cuban refugees here and of "dumping" some of the worst cases of alcoholic, unskilled, illiterate refugees on the city.
Latino Affairs director Willie Vazquez made the accusations against the Educational Organization for United Latin Americans (EOFULA), a group that received $1.1 million from the federal government to feed, clothe, house and provide employment services to about 180 Cuban refugees. The grant also covered alcoholism rehabilitation services to 60 of the refugees.
Vazquez alleged that EOFULA is housing the refugees -- all of whom came to the U.S. in the 1980 boatlift from Cuba -- in filthy, broken-down houses located in high-crime neighborhoods. Vazquez said that EOFULA has done "little or nothing" to enroll the refugees in English classes, help them find jobs and deal with the problems of adjusting to life in the United States.
"This program stinks and it's time to bring it to a closure," Vazquez said at a joint press conference yesterday with the leaders of Andromeda, the Spanish Education Development Center, and the Centro Wilson, three city Hispanic social service agencies.
Vazquez called for the resignation of EOFULA's director, Pedro DeJesus, and called on the Office of Refugee Resettlement, an arm of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, to investigate the way EOFULA has used its resettlement funds. DeJesus described Vazquez' remarks as a "personal vendetta" and said Vazquez' agency has done little to aid Latinos here.
Oliver Cromwell, spokesman for the U.S. refugee resettlement office responsible for monitoring programs like EOFULA, said representatives from his office visited EOFULA housing sites three times since March and found some problems with rodents, but basically were satisfied. He said that an in-depth audit of the EOFULA program will be conducted in next month.
EOFULA is a city-funded group that provides a variety of social services for Hispanic senior citizens. DeJesus said that EOFULA won a federal grant last March to resettle Cuban men over 40 years of age. The group has been responsible for the refugees for only three months, after which they have been placed on their own at various times over the last nine months.
DeJesus said the Cubans in his program had "received more than what the contract even called for."
He said that after the three months are up, the refugees are provided with "clean apartments." Many of the people in the program are too old or too sick to work, he said, and receive at least $180 in welfare and $40 in food stamps every month. He said they should be able to feed and clothe themselves and pay their rent.
In interviews with the refugees and a visit to one of the houses EOFULA found for them, at 1511 Marion St. NW, a different portrait emerges. Six men were sleeping there on mattresses on the floor in a filthy house that had no heat, no working oven, and a lock only on the front door. Some said they had not gotten their welfare checks from the District of Columbia government for this month and others said they already had spent their checks and had no more money for food.
The six men had one 12-ounce box of corn flakes, a half gallon of milk, a pound box of spaghetti, a large box of instant potatoes and 12 English muffins as their food for the week.
They said whatever clothes they have they received came through charitable groups or were found in trash cans. They said EOFULA had not given them a broom or any other cleaning materials for the house.
DeJesus contended that the Cubans find themselves short of cash and food and housed in bad conditions because they spend their welfare checks on alcohol. "They could have bought a broom . . . . That house on Marion Street was a nice house. It had a rug, a nice kitchen. What happened?" he asked.
Some of the men at the Marion Street house now face eviction for not paying their rent. At least 29 of the refugees in the EOFULA program have been evicted or are facing eviction, according to Lydia Fanfan, who is the refugee affairs coordinator for the D.C. Department of Human Services.
Fanfan said it is possible that some of the refugees are not getting their welfare payments because many of them have been evicted from addresses where DHS was sending the checks. In addition, she said, many are not showing up for recertification hearings, possibly because the notices are sent out in English.
Both Fanfan and Vazquez said DeJesus has done little to teach the Cubans basic skills needed to survive in American society, such as how to manage their money.
"These are people who come from a country where payment of rent is not a part of society," Fanfan said. "These are people who do not understand the sophistication of the American system or the legal structure that exists here. Part of the fault of what has happened here has to rest with the resettlement agency."
DeJesus said EOFULA offers three-hour English classes four times a week, but it is often difficult to get the refugees to attend them.