Stay or go? Decision time nears for displaced Puerto Rican families
A program that has paid for hotel rooms for thousands of people who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria is coming to an end on Saturday, leaving the families with two choices: Go back to the island or find a way to stay.
FEMA has been contacting Puerto Ricans who’ve been staying in hotels through the Temporary Sheltering Assistance Program, including some in Massachusetts, to offer one-way flights back to the island. The deadline to travel is July 1.
Since last fall, FEMA has spent more than $84 million on the temporary lodging needed after Maria devastated the island in September. The Category 4 storm left thousands without access to basic needs such as gas, power, and clean water. Today, power remains spotty on the island and many homes are without roofs. Despite the slow recovery, some who fled the hurricane’s aftermath have already returned to the island on their own, while a handful — 160 individuals — have accepted the government’s travel vouchers, according to a FEMA spokesman. Still, others say they will try to find a way to stay.
“Many of them don’t want to go back,” said Edwin Melendez, a professor of Urban Policy and Planning at Hunter College CUNY and director of the Center for Puerto Rican Studies. “Especially because it’s uncertain. If they are not there, potentially no one has fixed their housing. . . . They’re between a rock and a hard place.”
As of Wednesday, there were 1,763 families staying in hotels in 30 states and Puerto Rico, according to FEMA spokesman Juan A. Rosado-Reynes. State officials report that as of June 22, there were 338 displaced households from Puerto Rico still being sheltered in Massachusetts, with 222 lodged through the FEMA program and 116 receiving housing through a state-funded Red Cross placement program. Now, many of those people are unsure what they will do.
Nilca Rosa Brooks, 37, came to Massachusetts in the aftermath of Maria seeking a specialist to help her 1-year-old, who had a tracheotomy and has other medical complications. She said she left the island because she was afraid her son wouldn’t be able to get proper health care in Puerto Rico.
“I left my memories,” Rosa Brooks said, speaking in Spanish. “I came for my son’s health.”
“You can’t just throw a baby like this into the street,” she said.
Rosa Brooks’s anxiety was growing by the day. All the pregnant mother of five knows for sure is that her family must be out of their hotel, paid for by FEMA, before noon on Sunday.
“The truth is I don’t know anything,” Rosa Brooks said. “I don’t know where I’m going.”
In Massachusetts, the state has said it will pay for one more month of hotel accommodations for families with children under the age of 18. Rosa Brooks said she did not know whether she qualified for the extension.
For those hoping to settle here permanently, housing search assistance will be provided through regional administrative agencies and a new Massachusetts Evacuee Transitional Assistance program, which can be used to pay for initial rental payments, security deposits, moving expenses, furniture, and a short-term rental stipend.
But with the deadline for the end of federal assistance looming, community advocates and nonprofits are trying to find last-minute housing for single adults.
“As people continue to transition back to Puerto Rico and seek long-term housing options in our communities, the administration is providing disaster relief housing to families with children for another 30 days,” said Brendan Moss, a spokesman for Governor Charlie Baker. The state is also “making several state resources available to assist every evacuee overcome certain roadblocks to stable living and employment situations.”
More than 135,000 Puerto Ricans were thought to have relocated stateside from the island within six months after the hurricane last September, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College.
In Massachusetts, officials say more than 4,500 people who currently live in the state after evacuating the island registered for FEMA disaster assistance, which provided services such as temporary accommodations, employment search and transportation assistance, health care, behavioral and mental health services, and access to food and clothing.
Olga Guerrero, a social worker with Lowell Public Schools, has worked long days and weekends helping Puerto Rican families transition.
Some families in the region have had to move to four or five different hotels, she said. Every time the Temporary Sheltering Assistance Program was extended for another few weeks, families were relieved, but they couldn’t always stay in the same hotel. That upheaval meant moving everything they brought with them to a new location and attempting to adjust all over again.
“It’s important to get clear information and clear support,” Guerrero said. “If FEMA had done a better job in the beginning keeping them in one place, it would’ve been easier for them to transition, work, and get everything situated. But when you’re constantly moving people, how are they supposed to get settled?”
She said the housing instability and stress are taking a toll.
“What [FEMA] is doing is torture,” Guerrero said. “They need to take the mental health of these families more seriously.”