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FL: Lawsuit: Housing Authority won't translate documents / Read Comments

Monday, June 15, 2009

A growing population of immigrants and refugees is leading to increased conflict with public agencies over the translation of vital documents into Spanish and other languages.

Advocates in the Hispanic community and people who help refugees say housing is especially difficult for people who don't speak English well.

Case in point, they say, is a complaint against the Jacksonville Housing Authority by a woman who says it refused to translate documents.

Her lawyers say the authority ignored specific federal instructions to do so and filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Nick Shelley, field director for the Jacksonville HUD office, said the complaint is under investigation.

Mailin Soto, 20, was living in an apartment complex with the assistance of a federal Section 8 voucher until last year.

Her voucher, which based rent assistance on income, was revoked when she didn't report income from a new job within 10 days.

When she signed the documents spelling out that requirement, Soto said, she didn't understand what they said because no one at the Housing Authority would translate for her despite her request.

"When I went to the office and asked if they had anyone that could speak Spanish, they said no," Soto said in Spanish. "So I just signed, signed, signed where I thought I should."

Soto and her attorneys from Jacksonville Area Legal Aid say the Housing Authority refused to translate anything orally, and that no written information was available in Spanish. A Legal Aid investigator visited the Housing Authority in the fall and made the same determination when he asked about translation.

The Housing Authority said Soto understood the agreement she signed and that there were translation services available from multiple agency employees who speak Spanish, including the director of the Section 8 program.

"In her verbal as well as her written commentary to us, she understood the contract," said Derrel Chatmon, a City Hall attorney who represented the Jacksonville Housing Authority in a civil lawsuit on the matter.

A judge denied Soto's request for an injunction to keep her voucher.

In late December, Soto was forced to move out of the apartment in Arlington to her mother's cramped house, taking along her 1-year-old daughter, Angelin Blanco.

"If it was just me ... " she said, "but with my baby ... it was hard."

Regardless of the outcome in the Soto case, changes have been happening at the Housing Authority.

In the past couple of months, the agency has contracted with a company that does telephone interpretations and has designated an employee as the go-to interpreter for Spanish-speaking clients. A sign now hangs at the door with a sentence in multiple languages indicating that translation assistance is available.

Chatmon said a company was available when Soto was applying for aid; Frederick McKinnies, senior vice president of the agency, said the current company's contract didn't start until this spring.

McKinnies said there are no written documents available in other languages, but that oral translation is available to explain the documents to anyone who can't read them. The authority's policy reads, in part, that if a client "cannot read, or read English, the document may be read and explained to him/her in plain language."

Nilda Alejandro, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, the Council of Spanish Speaking Organizations and an advocate for translating vital information into Spanish, said she frequently gets calls from the community about housing. She said she recently met with people at the authority but left disappointed - and worried for the families that call her in desperate need of shelter and not sure where to turn.

"I was in shock to hear and learn that they have ... no documents in Spanish," she said.

The issue has a reach far beyond the Spanish-speaking community, said Barbara Carr, director of refugee and immigration services for Lutheran Social Services. With Jacksonville a top city for refugees resettled by the federal government, housing is a big problem, she said.

"Basically what they're doing is denying people access to federally funded programs," Carr said.

The HUD guidance in question requires agencies to provide written translated documents where 1,000 or more of their eligible population are limited in English proficiency and have another language in common. According to figure from the U.S. Census and the Department of Labor from 2000, there were at least 6,000 Spanish-speaking people in the First Coast region that spoke English "not well" or "not at all." But the definition of eligible is subject to a complex analysis.

Whatever the 2000 figures, that number is almost certainly higher today.

In 2007 there were 3,791 students in the Duval public school system who were learning English as a second language - a 56 percent increase over the 1999-2000 school year.

With the recession leaving more families - Hispanics included - in danger of becoming homeless, Alejandro said the problem is growing, and ultimately could contribute to increasing the crime rate.

"When they're looking for help," she said, "there's no one to help."

deirdre.conner@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4504

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