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6 Haiti earthquake victims forced to leave St. Pete nursing home

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Published:   |   Updated: March 13, 2013 at 05:27 PM
ST. PETERSBURG -

From his spot outside the nursing home, Carlo Alcanthe watches as people walk, run and bike on the nearby Pinellas Trail.

He can only watch. Alcanthe is confined to a wheelchair and, he says, chained to the nursing home.

The 39-year-old former teacher and five other Haitian refugees are housed here. They are victims of a massive earthquake that shattered their bodies and their homeland in January 2010.

Now, with government and charitable money running out after three years, they face an unenviable choice — move out of the nursing home or be sent back to Haiti.

"I'm worried," Alcanthe says. "I don't want to go back."

"Haiti has no access for the handicapped," Alcanthe says. "They end up begging in the streets.

"I'm young. I can work. I want to work. I want to take care of my family," he says.

He has a wife and two young children back in Haiti.

The ordeal started out with the best of intentions in the weeks and months after the January 2010 quake that killed and maimed hundreds of thousands in the Caribbean nation.

More than 100 of the injured were flown to St. Petersburg, where they were treated for injuries. Most got better, thanks to help from Catholic Charities, and were repatriated or assimilated here.

The six in the nursing home underwent surgery to mend broken bones and fix internal injuries. They represent the last of the 100 Haitians.

They were too damaged to be put entirely back together. All suffered permanent injuries in the quake and are bound to their wheelchairs. Their care in the nursing home is expensive.

Now they face a deadline to move out of the nursing home or be returned to Haiti.

Alcanthe and his fellow refugees have lived at Egret Cove Center for two years. Their stay has been paid for out of a government refugee fund administered through Catholic Charities, said Pierre Guillet, who heads the Regional Organization for Improvement of Haitian Community. The local advocacy group safeguards the rights of displaced Haitians and helps train immigrants for jobs.

In other parts of the state and nation, the refugees might have had more options. In Miami, Guillet says, a large Haitian community would step up to help. But here, the refugees are more isolated because the Haitian population is relatively small and far flung, he said.

Guillet says one of the members of his organization has offered a house the six can stay in, but money is needed for food, medical care and transportation. He said strings on government money mean the refugees cannot work while in the care of the nursing home, though all are willing to work whatever jobs they can.

None wants to be deported.

"They don't want to go back," he says. "By sending them back to Haiti, you are sending them to death."

That's already happened, he said. Last month, two Haitians who were part of the group went back to their homeland. Within a week, one was dead, Guillet says.

For the remaining six, Guillet says there is no plan to train them for work; funding for their rehabilitation has run out. They want to remain here. Though they are in wheelchairs, they are willing to do what it takes to become self-sustainable, he says.

"They all are grateful for what has been done," he says, "but they need to be self-sufficient here. They are handicapped, but they are smart people."

"I can take care of myself," Alcanthe says.

Catholic Charities played a big part in helping the displaced Haitians in the Tampa area. The charity has provided funding for food, shelter and medical care for all the Haitians sent here after the earthquake.

Sheila Lopez, chief operating officer for the nonprofit, said the question of what to do with the six Haitians in the nursing home is a complex one.

"We've been trying to move them for quite a while," she said Tuesday morning, just before a visit to the home to chat with her charges. "Some of them can't move. They need the care of a nursing home."

Some are still receiving needed medical care and rehabilitation, she said, and have not been cleared to go anywhere.

Frank Murphy, spokesman for the Catholic Diocese of St. Petersburg, says the six Haitians at Egret Cove Center represent the most seriously injured from the quake who found themselves in the Tampa area receiving treatment.

The goal, he said, was to treat the injuries and help the refugees return to Haiti if they wanted or get them living independently here.

For most, the goal was realized, he said.

"Only the very seriously injured remain," he said.

Staying in the nursing home isn't cheap, Murphy said. He said monthly bills add up to thousands of dollars.

"The nursing home is doing a wonderful job," he says, "but (the refugees) are running out of time."

Anyone who wants to donate to the Regional Organization for Improvement of Haitian Community can contact the organization at (813) 932-2985 or www.roich4all.org.


kmorelli@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7760

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