Opinion

Opinion | The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus

A program exists to save Puerto Rico. Make it law

In this June 13, 2018 photo, a residence in the Figueroa neighborhood stands destroyed nine months after Hurricane Maria, in San Juan, Puerto Rico. While the Department of Housing channels millions in federal funds through the "Tu Hogar Renace" program to repair homes affected by the storm, there are still thousands of homes that are in need for repairs. (AP Photo/Carlos Giusti)
Carlos Giusti/Associated Press
A home in the Figueroa neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico stands destroyed nine months after Hurricane Maria, pictured on June 13.

On Oct. 29, 2012, Hurricane Sandy made landfall, thrashing the East Coast while leaving the lives of many in shambles. Within five months, the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, or DHAP, was activated in response. The program provided rent subsidies, security-deposit assistance, and also helped pay utilities.

Five years later on Sept. 20, 2017, the nation watched as Hurricane Maria wreaked havoc on the more than 3 million residents of Puerto Rico. Roughly eight months have passed, yet the people of Puerto Rico have received no equivalent to what their counterparts received after Sandy. Instead of DHAP, they received a deadline —on June 30 the Federal Emergency Management Agency will end the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program that has provided housing for more than 7,000 families throughout the country.

Fleeing devastation, many of these Americans came to Massachusetts in search of safe harbor. They found peace and optimism, as stakeholders from across the state coalesced in support. The state helped cover costs associated with housing, and Governor Baker came forth to assist in the creation of the Massachusetts United for Puerto Rico fund. With roughly $1.1 million doled out in grants, and more on the way, the fund helped hundreds of Puerto Ricans find their role in Massachusetts society.

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The city of Lawrence alone is hosting roughly 110 families seeking refuge. This is part of a much larger evacuee population of roughly 3,399 in Massachusetts, which makes us the state with the third highest concentration of evacuees. The federal housing assistance, coupled with municipal and state aid, has played a critical role in getting them on their feet. Taking that assistance away with no safety net would inevitably wipe away any progress they have made thus far and exacerbate an already challenging situation.

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With diminishing hope for another extension of the assistance, families have directed their advocacy in support of the program that was implemented for both hurricanes Sandy and Katrina. DHAP is a program with proven success: It resulted in 95 percent of the Katrina participants securing stable housing after the program’s end. DHAP helped Americans get back on their feet. Puerto Ricans are yearning for that same opportunity.

Puerto Rico has not received the response it deserves, and Americans are dying as a result. Reports state that Hurricane Maria-related deaths could be as high as 4,000 or more. This is outrageously higher than the official count of 64. The islanders were also shortchanged in the early days of the response, when they received 10,000 personnel to assist their efforts, compared with the 30,000 sent to Houston in response to Hurricane Harvey within the same timeframe. We have heard countless stories of inequity like this, and we know all too well that there are many other instances where Puerto Rico has not received what it deserves.

Activating DHAP would put Puerto Ricans on a viable path to recovery — one that ends with them in permanent housing funded by their own means. This is not a permanent program, but temporary assistance for those who have no other option. DHAP would place families in homes allowing them to focus on finding jobs, creating stable lives, and becoming productive members of society as they settle into their new reality. Nonetheless, calls to implement such an initiative have been ignored. As a result, legislators have boldly stepped forward to change the narrative.

Legislation filed in the US House of Representatives would force the implementation of a DHAP program within 15 days of becoming law. This need not be a partisan issue; rather, it is an American issue. This is about getting families out of hotels and into somewhere they can comfortably call home. Whatever cost we may incur from such a program will pale in comparison to the inevitable costs associated with the array of consequences that arise from homelessness as these families leave their hotels. The treatment of the people of Puerto Rico thus far has been unacceptable. It is time we stand up as a nation to make a much needed change.

The Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus is a group of 13 state legislators who advocate for communities of color throughout the Commonwealth. For more information, please visit: www.mablacklatinocaucus.com/