Puerto Rican hurricane evacuees in Philadelphia: 'No help at all'
Since Hurricane Maria ravaged Puerto Rico, thousands of families have relocated to the U.S. mainland, coming in waves to cities and towns. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has processed 1.1 million applications for aid for people affected by Hurricane Maria but less than half of that number have received help. And now the aid will end for some.
After Hurricane Maria left his house in Puerto Rico flooded and without electricity last year, Jesus Rodriguez sold his Toyota 4Runner for $4,000 and bought his family one-way plane tickets to Philadelphia.
Rodriguez arrived first, on Oct. 25. His wife, Sandra Martinez, flew in with their three boys on Nov. 23. They used some of the car money to rent a house in the city's Fairhill section, hopeful they would soon get the emergency assistance they were told was coming from the federal government.
"We got here three months ago," Rodriguez said last week in his empty living room. "And there has been no help, no help at all, nothing."
Since the hurricane ravaged the island on Sept. 20, thousands of families have relocated to the U.S. mainland, coming in waves to cities and towns. Many arrived with just a suitcase — no job, money, or English-speaking skills.
In the ensuing months, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has processed 1.1 million aid applications from Maria victims. Vouchers from FEMA and help from other agencies have covered basic living expenses, such as hotel stays for families whose homes were deemed uninhabitable after the storm.
But less than half of all applicants have received help — and those who did were told it was never meant to be permanent. So many are now facing a stark reality: the end of FEMA aid. On Wednesday, 200 evacuee families nationwide will lose their housing assistance, including 14 in Pennsylvania.
"Where am I going to go?" said Carlos Torres-Aviles, who has been staying since Jan. 10 at the Windsor Suites hotel on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. "I would sleep anywhere, but I have my 16-year-old son with me."
Torres-Aviles said the apartment he used to rent near San Juan has someone else living in it now. He wouldn't want to go back anyway.
"I want a better life for my son. We can do that here," he said. He just needs to find a job, he said.
On Monday, Torres-Aviles joined more than a dozen other Puerto Rican evacuees and advocates at a news conference calling for an indefinite extension of FEMA's aid to hurricane victims, called Temporary Shelter Assistance — at least until all evacuees have found jobs and homes of their own. The group also called for the city and state to provide funding for housing.
"We need to raise our voices to help these families so they aren't dislodged into the streets of Philadelphia," Charito Morales, a nurse and community activist, said in Spanish over a megaphone outside of the Municipal Services Building. "Philadelphia already has many homeless people, and we don't need to add to that with people who come with more problems to this city."
Since the storm, FEMA has funded more than $1 billion in disaster assistance to 422,798 families affected by Maria. Much of that aid has stayed on the island. Of the families that moved to the mainland, 6,439 have received Temporary Shelter Assistance and about two-thirds currently remain in hotels.
Of them, 184 are in Pennsylvania hotels. But at the moment, the aid is largely a federal initiative. Florida has been the only state deemed a "host state," meaning that state spending on sheltering evacuees will be covered by FEMA.
The agency is abiding by a rule, created at the request of the Puerto Rico governor, that once an evacuee's home in Puerto Rico is deemed habitable either by a FEMA inspector or because power is restored to the home, the family is no longer eligible for housing aid, FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues said. The last deadline for Puerto Ricans affected by Maria to apply for FEMA aid is March 20. That same day, the agency is expected to stop paying for hotels for another round of aid recipients.
Several of the city's nonprofits with roots in the Puerto Rican community have hosted workshops and offered assistance to the evacuees. Most of the help has been in navigating what can be a daunting — or disheartening — process of applying for federal assistance.
"FEMA is limited — and I think it's been eye-opening for a lot of us working these cases — FEMA is not there to make someone whole," said Will Gonzalez, executive director at Ceiba, a nonprofit that has organized legal clinics for evacuees.
At Monday's news conference, Melanie Garcia teared up as she described arriving to Philadelphia in November and losing FEMA housing aid in January. She and her three young sons, one of whom is deaf, have since been living with relatives in cramped apartments and in fear of being evicted.
Garcia's husband recently landed a maintenance job at a Walmart and is trying to save money for their own place, she said.
Getting public housing is nearly impossible. The Philadelphia Housing Authority has a waiting list of more than 44,000 people. And after accepting two families immediately after the hurricane, city officials decided they couldn't let more Puerto Rican evacuees jump to the front of the line.
It "risked creating a disparity between those waiting for PHA assistance," said Noelle Foizen, spokeswoman for the city's Emergency Management Office.
The city has taken other steps to help. After it opened a disaster assistance center on Oct. 11, it helped 2,003 displaced Puerto Rican residents apply for FEMA aid, get connected to social services, including welfare and food stamps, and enroll their children for school. The center closed Dec. 20, although evacuees have continued to flock to Philadelphia.
In a statement late Monday, Mayor Kenney called on the federal government to do more. "I stand with advocates in calling for this funding to be extended immediately," he said.
The state has picked up some welcoming duties. On Tuesday, it is hosting an information fair for evacuees at the Salvation Army in Fairhill. Asked about specific steps to provide housing and jobs, Gov. Wolf's spokeswoman Sara J. Goulet said: "We can look at what else we can do."
The bureaucracy itself can be overwhelming.
Martinez, the mother of three who arrived in November, spent three hours at a Feb. 3 Ceiba workshop — most of it waiting for volunteers to guide her in filling out FEMA forms for her application file. She and her husband had attended an identical workshop last month, waiting five hours only to be told that they needed more FEMA paperwork.
"We just keep hitting wall after wall," Rodriguez said.
The agency did offer them temporary shelter at a hotel near the airport, Martinez said. But by then their children were settled in schools near Fairhill. Now they are hoping to get FEMA assistance to help pay their $700 monthly rent. Until now, they've used welfare money plus the last of the cash they got from selling their 4Runner. Come March, they won't have enough to pay rent.
Their rental house has no furniture except two mattresses — one for the parents, one shared by the boys, who have their own room with a TV and gaming system that their grandfather sent them.
"If we were able to get jobs, we could fend for ourselves," Rodriguez said.
Tens of thousands of new Puerto Rican evacuees are projected to flood the state this year, and the focus on their plight will continue. On Friday, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello is expected to visit Philadelphia, ostensibly to discuss the situation for evacuees.
Gonzalez, the nonprofit executive director, said the city and state have challenges ahead.
"Now we need to make the adjustment to recognize the needs of these new Philadelphians, new Pennsylvanians," he said. "And there is still a lot of work to do and we're hoping [city officials] rise up to that challenge."