After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, more than 1,300 people evacuated to Connecticut. A year after the storm, life for many of the displaced is beginning to return to normalcy, as state aid provides them with long-term resources.
This summer, the state government approved $4.4 million to aid the relief effort in New Haven and other Connecticut communities. With this funding, evacuees will be able to access critical resources, such as long-term housing and public education. The money will also sustain nonprofit organizations such as Junta for Progressive Action, which has served more than 450 displaced families.
“With these allocations, we’ll be able to move these families forward,” representative Juan Candelaria, who championed the bill, said at a press conference in June, according to the New Haven Register. “They’re facing many challenges and the work we were able to do at the legislature along with our support from both sides of the aisle was critically important.”
The bill received bipartisan support in the Connecticut General Assembly. Of the approved funds, $1.5 million will go toward housing and social services. The remaining $2.9 million will support school districts that have welcomed students from Puerto Rico.
Agencies that have helped the displaced population will also receive a total of $500,000. During the emergency, Junta drew upon its savings to keep its doors open, while navigating a change in leadership and relying on mostly part-time staff. The organization has helped over 1,200 evacuees.
“Junta really acted as our resource,” said Rick Fontana, director of emergency operations for New Haven and coordinator of the Mayor’s task force on Puerto Rico hurricane evacuation. “They had done this before, they had acted as a resource center, they had the Spanish-speaking folks that could handle those coming here. And believe me, they were off the ground before the state was even ready to roll.”
According to Alicia Caraballo, interim executive director at Junta, the nonprofit is eager to access resources from the state to support its staff and programming.
However, the organization continues to grapple with a shortage of sustainable housing for evacuees, a problem that has persisted since the hurricane.
“We still see folks coming in,” Caraballo said. “What we’re working on is to continue to get families into permanent housing, which is probably the biggest, biggest challenge here. There is just very little affordable housing.”
Fontana, who echoed this sentiment, said he believes long-term housing is the evacuees’ greatest need.
Last year, 123 evacuated families in Connecticut were in the Transitional Sheltering Program, through which the federal government provides short-term housing. After a series of extensions, the program is set to expire next Friday.
Beyond the housing crisis, Junta and other community organizations, such as Arte, Inc. and the Fair Haven Community Health Center, have been offering comprehensive relief services. The Fair Haven Clinic, for instance, has been treating some evacuees for post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It was really a community-wide collaboration,” said Fontana. “The compassion, the care showed by everyone was amazing, to watch this community come together for the victims.”
Still, there is work to be done. In particular, evacuees and host families lack employment and housing resources. Caraballo said that a “whole network of families are staying with other families” that are “really stretched.”
“It has been a very stressful time,” Fontana said. “But I have watched the Puerto Rican community, which I know very little about… They are close-knit. I have learned a lot about how they are integrated so closely with one another. I gotta be honest with you, it was a learning experience for me.”
Ruiyan Wang | firstname.lastname@example.org