Evacuees from Puerto Rico struggle to find housing

2017-10-27 | New Haven Register

Oct. 28 -- NEW HAVEN -- The desperate Puerto Ricans arriving in New Haven from their devastated island know where to go for help: Junta for Progressive Action in Fair Haven .

But that doesn't mean they'll know where they'll be sleeping that night.

While the social service agency serves the city's Latino community with more than two-dozen programs, from diapers to legal services, the biggest demand right now is for housing as evacuees from Hurricane Maria flee their devastated homes.

Many are staying with relatives and friends temporarily, but red tape and a lack of beds is making it difficult to give the arrivals a more long-term solution.

"It's housing that is the most crucial situation that is happening right now, and we still have zero answers," said Paola Serrecchia , director of community outreach for Junta. "People are traumatized and dislocated and so right now the biggest gap that we are actually looking at is actually housing."

When Maria destroyed much of Puerto Rico and the rest of the Caribbean on Sept. 20 , many residents, suddenly homeless, fled to find refuge with family and friends on the mainland.

With 24,000 residents who identify as of Puerto Rican origin -- 19 percent of the population, according to Data Haven -- New Haven became one of the many destinations for those displaced, putting stress on the public and subsidized housing stock in the city.

Many of the city's Puerto Rican residents are low-income families and live in subsidized housing, subjecting them to strict occupancy rules, Serrecchia said. Residents of Section 8 housing "cannot have people in their homes for more than 14 days" unless the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development creates an exception, Serrecchia said. "HUD hasn't reported yet on how to be flexible on that," she said.

Finding housing of their own for displaced families is a monumental challenge. Serrecchia described one family of five with a child that has cerebral palsy, epilepsy "and he also has a feeding tube and he's sleeping on the floor. I've been working with New Horizons, which has been absolutely fabulous ... in trying to help us right now, but the reality is in five days they will be homeless because of the 14-day [limit]." NeighborWorks New Horizons is a nonprofit organization that acquires and provides affordable housing.

The city's homeless shelters aren't a good solution, either. "Just to get an intake for a shelter is 15 days," Serrecchia said. The family's appointment with United Way's Coordinated Access Network is for Nov. 15 , well beyond the limit for them to stay where they are now.

"It becomes this cycle of somebody coming here, staying with a family member or friend and then not being able to find even emergency housing before that 14 days is up and before their CAN intake appointment," Serrecchia said. "That doesn't even guarantee that they'll be housed that day, either."

Another family of 12 arrived with an uncle who needed cancer surgery. Yale New Haven Hospital was willing to do the surgery without insurance coverage, but there was no place that could accommodate a dozen people.

"Now the family is split between people that they don't know and a land that they don't know," Serrecchia said.

Many of the arrivals have had their homes and incomes wiped out by Maria, and so finding semi-permanent housing is nearly impossible unless HUD provides rental assistance.

"Landlords are asking now for two months' rent and a security deposit ... so to get some rental assistance would be helpful," Serrecchia said.

The state Department of Social Services once distributed vouchers for security deposits but no longer does so, she said.

HUD, the Housing Authority of New Haven (also known as Elm City Communities) and private management companies each have their own regulations that families must navigate. Property managers often ask for birth certificates or Social Security cards, which most evacuees left behind in Puerto Rico , Serrecchia said.

Section 8 housing, which has a two- to five-year waiting list, is not a realistic option, Serrecchia said. "I've known people who've been on a waiting list for seven years," she said. "The puertorequeño evacuees don't understand that a waiting list means years. It's not a few weeks."

"I actually would prefer if the housing authorities could come together ... and say, 'We're going to give you vouchers'" for security deposits and rental assistance, Serrecchia said. The state governs municipal housing authorities and Serrecchia said, "I'm asking for the state to start concretely giving some of those options for folks."

As of Thursday, 69 students and 70 other family members had arrived in New Haven , according to Rick Fontana , deputy director of emergency operations for the city, who is coordinating New Haven's overall response to the hurricane. The city has started a database to match evacuees with needed services, but it's difficult to track arrivals because Puerto Ricans, as American citizens, can travel freely throughout the country without registering.

The city may not know they've arrived "until they apply for some sort of resource or service," Fontana said. "When people got here is when they started looking for medical care, for food, for schooling, for housing."

Serrecchia said that in two days she had met with 26 families. "This is the tip of the iceberg," she said. "There are family members that are waiting for plane tickets, that are sitting in the airport in Puerto Rico . ... There are people in Florida that are waiting to get to Connecticut and are waiting for funds."

Fontana said the city has been in contact with Bradley International Airport so that when a flight from Puerto Rico is coming, "We know what time it's coming in, we know the flight number and we know the number of people on that flight."

Junta has become known as the central support agency for Latinos in New Haven , but its running out of resources to distribute. "Without the housing, we're going to lose a lot of people and I'm afraid that people are going to get sicker," Serrecchia said. "They're not going to have any place to go."

Serrecchia has seen some arrivals "walking the streets. They have no friends or family here."

Governmental agencies at all levels need to realize how dire the situation is, she said. "We are in a disaster relief response right now," she said. "This is not just a situation where people need housing. Entities need to be flexible, just like we're being flexible."

Even basic benefits come with major hurdles. The Federal Emergency Management Agency gives disaster victims $500 in critical needs assistance, "but they have to do an inspection of your home in Puerto Rico to prove that you've lost your home," Serrecchia said. With little communication on the island, "they've got to find a way to get that information back to the States ... and then the process starts to get that $500 ."

" Connecticut needs to wait for Washington to say, 'You can be flexible with these regulations,'" Serrecchia said. "It's really all this bureaucracy and this red tape that's really getting in the way of these people and the needs that they have."

In order to cut through the bureaucracy, U.S. Sens. Richard Blumenthal , D- Conn. , and Bill Cassidy , R- La. , have written to FEMA Administrator Brock Long , asking him to enter into an Interagency Agreement with HUD, which would allow HUD to administer a Disaster Housing Assistance Program with FEMA funds. That program is similar to Section 8 assistance, providing money to rent an apartment rather than provide temporary housing, such as in a hotel, according to staff in Blumenthal's office.

The letter acknowledges that the evacuees may never return to their homes.

"While the road ahead will take many years, FEMA should take immediate action to provide flexibility to allow displaced families and individuals to access housing assistance in any community where housing options are available," the letter states.

"If we don't house people, people are going to die, and it's getting cold outside," Serrecchia said. "The elderly that have lived all their lives in Puerto Rico are coming here and they're shaking and they're saying, 'Where am I going to sleep tonight?' and what am I going to say to them?"

Serrecchia, who was born in San Juan, feels their anguish on a personal level. "I love Junta and I love my work, but I really do it for my people," she said.

Contact Ed Stannard at edward.stannard@hearstmediact.com or 203-680-9382.

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