More than 1,300 people have evacuated to Connecticut from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands in the aftermath of hurricanes Maria and Irma, which struck over eight months ago.
Junta for Progressive Action, a nonprofit advocacy group and resource center for the Latino community of greater New Haven, has been offering comprehensive relief services since the natural disasters. To date, Junta has served more than 950 people displaced by the hurricanes, and the organization continues to receive new evacuees every day. But a lack of housing options poses a serious challenge to the relief effort.
“If the state and the federal government do not pull something to help these evacuees, we will continue to see secondary consequences of the hurricanes, which will be more deaths and people who are homeless, sleeping on the streets,” said Paola Serrecchia, director of advocacy and community engagement for Junta.
According to Serrecchia, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is withdrawing the temporary assistance shelter program established in Connecticut after the hurricanes — a move that has contributed to the housing crisis for evacuees. Junta was recently informed that its FEMA representative will leave next week.
Ron Roth, a spokesman for FEMA, provided the News with a statement saying the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program — which offers short-term shelter to disaster survivors — is due to expire on May 14. There are 2,697 families from Puerto Rico receiving aid from the program, 123 of which currently reside in Connecticut, according to the statement.
On Wednesday, the governor of Puerto Rico requested a third extension of the assistance program, which has not yet been granted, according to FEMA. An eligibility review for those enrolled in the assistance program is due on April 20, when evacuees must verify that they meet FEMA criteria for shelter assistance. Survivors who have “received two months of rental assistance,” “cannot verify their occupancy” or whose “homes had insufficient damage” are no longer eligible for the assistance program, according to the statement Roth shared.
Junta has also reached out to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing vouchers, which it has not received.
Rhonda Siciliano, public affairs officer for the New England region of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, said HUD has been working closely with local authorities on this issue. She also said evacuees need to qualify for the program in order to get a voucher, but she did not delineate which qualifications the evacuees do not fulfill.
“It’s a process. Obviously there has to be housing to place them into, and there’s already a lack of that,” Siciliano said. “We’re just working to accommodate people where we’re able to. It’s a process. I know there are a lot of organizations working together to try to address this issue, on the state, local and federal level.”
Serrecchia said many evacuees travel to New Haven without any personal resources or belongings, sometimes coming with only the name and address of a distant relative. Even if they are able to locate their families, it is sometimes impossible to live in relatives’ apartments, which may become crowded and put people at risk for eviction.
Despite the struggle with government-assisted housing, Junta has worked in collaboration with numerous community partners to effectively provide many other disaster relief services and provisions. These include medical services, employment resources, English and computer classes, food, clothing and FEMA registration, according to Serrecchia. Junta has also received donations from the New Haven faith community, as well as a substantial contribution from Peter and Marta Salovey.
“What we needed to do was create a community response to the disaster relief, because there were no resources that were coming federally or from the state,” said Serrecchia. She also said that some evacuees have serious medical needs, such as a woman whose leg had to be amputated after she contracted an infection from flooding in Puerto Rico.
Fair Haven Community Health Care, which was part of Mayor Toni Harp’s task force for emergency preparedness with Junta, is among the community organizations that are also part of the relief effort. At the peak of the disaster, 30 to 40 new patients from Puerto Rico sought medical attention from the Fair Haven Community Health Care each week, and the organization has served over 400 evacuees in total, according to Suzanne Lagarde, chief executive officer of Fair Haven Community Health Care.
She said the organization used a “multipronged” approach to treat patients, convening a team of physicians, social workers and behavioral health providers, who would be available to see clients at the same time. Fair Haven Community Health Care also established a hotline specifically for Junta, so that displaced people seeking medical advice could receive help right away.
“This was our community. We had to respond,” said Lagarde. “Our staff… were feeling this because they have friends and family in Puerto Rico who were affected. Similarly, our patients’ families and friends were affected.”
Another nonprofit involved in providing services to evacuees is Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, which seeks to help refugees and other displaced persons. Enlisted by Junta to assist in the disaster relief effort, Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services provided school tutoring, resume help and hundreds of winter clothing items to evacuees. The Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services food pantry — a source of fresh produce and meat — was also made available to those displaced.
Ann O’Brien, director of community engagement at Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services, said the organization has assisted displaced people who are not refugees or immigrants in the past, including evacuees after Hurricane Katrina.
A bill for disaster relief funding is currently in the appropriations committee of the state legislature. Serrecchia hopes the bill, along with other legislative reforms, will better prepare organizations like Junta to serve displaced people in the future.
“FEMA will leave, and we will still be here to help the people who have been displaced,” Serrecchia said. “We will never close our doors.”
Ruiyan Wang | firstname.lastname@example.org