HUNTS POINT — A travel agency in the South Bronx is doing more than just booking trips — it has become a makeshift community center, offering free help on everything from applying for food stamps to filling out job applications.
Elvira Castro, who has managed Su Casa Travel Bureau at 887 Hunts Point Ave. for decades, didn't set out to become a stopgap service center for local residents — but when a community center across the street closed 25 years ago (it's now a Kennedy Fried Chicken), people began coming to the travel agency for help and have been returning ever since.
“I’ve been here for over 40 years, so if somebody walks in to ask for help because they’re immigrants, they don’t know the language, they don’t know how to read, of course I’m going to help them,” Castro said.
In between arranging flights and selling car insurance to paying customers, Castro also helps local residents fill out forms for Social Security, welfare, food stamps, taxes and jobs. Castro’s clients are mainly Spanish speakers, but represent a variety of nationalities. They also include the elderly and residents who cannot read.
Castro, 56, a Staten Island resident who previously lived in the South Bronx, has worked at Su Casa since 1976. She helps anyone who comes in during the agency's operating hours, as long as she's available, and while she charges $2 for notarizing forms, assistance with government forms and other documents is free. Clients sometimes bring her coffee, buy her lunch or give her a couple dollars to show their gratitude.
“If you have it, you have it. If you don’t you don’t,” she said of compensation for her services. “It’s not something that’s written on stone.”
Elisa Contero, 73, a landlord for two apartments in Hunts point, recently came to Su Casa for advice on how to deal with the New York City Housing Authority's Section 8 program, which she said had not paid its share of one of her tenants’ rent for the past eight months. Castro suggested that she call the federal Section 8 program and explain her situation.
“When I need her, I come to see her,” Contero said. “This is the only place. I don’t go to any other place.”
Castro has no plans to formalize the services she offers, saying that getting funding from the city is a complicated process.
“I like the way it is,” she said. “Because when you try to do anything with the city, to formalize it, there’s always restrictions, forms.”