March 22, 2013

Founder of Galata makes plea to save social-services group

While a social-services group comes under scrutiny by the county for alleged misuse of funds, its founder is making his case that no wrongdoing has occurred.

André Étienne has one request for government officials in Miami-Dade County: Please don’t shut down Galata. The Homestead nonprofit group, which provides social services to low-income migrants, depends mainly on government funding.

Étienne, 68, is one of Galata’s many clients who don’t understand why the community center has had to make cuts to its operations. He said that since he left his native Saint-Marc, Haiti, in the 1980s in search of a better future for his family, no organization has been as helpful as Galata.

With help from the center’s case managers, Étienne learned that he qualified for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), food stamps and Medicaid. He has also enjoyed social events at the center, 916 N. Flagler Ave., which he said have made him feel less alone. And he has benefited from Galata’s free transportation services, which shuttle clients to doctor’s appointments and other errands. He thinks of the center as his second home.

“Galata has been there for me,” Étienne said. “I have had very nice case workers who have even come to my house. A lot of people who don’t speak English … need them. I ask those who can do something to please, please, please try not to let it close. They are very important to a lot of us.”

Galata’s founder, Joseph “Billy” Louis, said that continuing to help elderly migrants was his priority when he applied for a $500,000 grant from the county in 2007 to help pay off the mortgage on the center. County officials and Galata agreed in 2009 that the $500,000 had been used appropriately. But four years later, officials are arguing that because the mortgage balance on the center is about $318,000, and that there are several payroll tax liens on the property, the use of the funds is in question.

“I didn’t take the money and put it in my pocket, and that is what ‘misuse’ sounds like. The county knows we used all of the money to pay Galata’s bills,” said Louis, 42. “I was doing what every executive director of a nonprofit does. I was trying to survive. I have always had to fight. When you don’t have those big friends who play golf with you and are doing fundraisers, or big attorneys giving you advice, it’s not easy.”

Galata has received at least $84,000 in grants from Homestead. And in 2011, a city program to improve low-income neighborhoods awarded Galata five homes, altogether valued at about $350,000, to lease to low-income families, city spokeswoman Begoñe Cazalis said.

Homestead Councilman Jimmie Williams said he respected Louis for helping a disenfranchised community. He was in support of allowing Galata to lease the homes from 2011 to 2036. According to the agreement, the profits from the leases were to be used solely to maintain the property. Louis said that funds for the management of the homes are kept in accounts separate from that of his organization.

“The [inspector general’s] report was a little alarming,” Williams said. “As far as I knew, his reputation was impeccable. Many people benefited from his work ethic. I saw no fault in him, especially in the services his organization was providing.”

Louis said his idea for Galata had been in the works since he was a teenager in Haiti: One time, heavily armed men walked into his home. One of them fired a weapon. No one was hurt, but he and his brother were so terrified that they sought refuge inside a nearby church. Louis said he knelt down and made a promise to God.

“That was the day my heart changed. They were looking for my stepdad, who worked for [then-President of Haiti Jean-Claude] Duvalier,” Louis said. “I was afraid for my life. I told God that if He got me out of that little country, I would always serve Him. I would help others.”

Louis arrived in Homestead with his mother and brother in 1987. The three found work on a farm with lemon trees, but Louis stopped working there after his brother had a severe allergic reaction to a chemical and was hospitalized. Louis found work at a fast-food restaurant and earned a degree in psychology from Carlos Albizu University.

“There weren’t enough psychologists or counselors who spoke Creole, so I thought I could be helpful,” Louis said. “Then I saw that a lot of the elderly who didn’t speak English were breaking their backs, even though they qualified for” government assistance.

Louis founded Galata in 2000, and six years later purchased its headquarters. He organized festivals and applied for government grants, but said it was not easy to meet all of the financial obligations.

“Galata is my heart. Without it, I’m nothing. Without it, I’m no one,” Louis said through tears. “It is the only thing in my life that makes sense. We didn’t do anything illegal. That is not the kind of person I am. I gave it my all. I tried to solve problem after problem, and I haven’t given up yet.”

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