Advocates Say U.S. Inaction Adds To Psychological Toll For Displaced Puerto Ricans


U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal at recent press conference held in Hartford to focus on the housing crisis for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria
U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal at recent press conference held in Hartford to focus on the housing crisis for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria

Bill Sarno/
For many of the more than estimated 13,000 Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria who came to Connecticut, those who remain here find life is still fraught with uncertainty and anxiety as they struggle to obtain basic necessities, employment, health care and, especially, a  permanent place to live.
And if the ongoing trauma of trying to survive in an unfamiliar climate and culture was not enough of a burden,  for some there was no escaping the psychological toll of having endured and left behind the widespread destruction, death and illness in their homeland.
The various relief programs that were quickly launched to help those forced by necessity to leave Puerto Rico, as well as the Virgin Islands (No exact data exists on the number of those who fled to Connecticut), have found that  referrals to mental health clinics and counseling agencies have become almost as vital as providing food,  shelter and healthcare.
Two of the major mental health issues that persist are a suicidal tendency among the younger arrivals and the fear among the elderly that they will never go home, said Paolo Verrechia, who manages the state’s last operating full-service relief center – there had been three – at Junta for Progressive Action in New Haven.
Another concern is that the post-hurricane trauma may not quickly go away and may require years of treatment, said Scott Appleby, Director of Emergency Management and Homeland Security in Bridgeport. He noted that Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005 and people are still trying to recover mentally.
Compounding the evacuees anxiety and psychological distress is a sense that the Trump Administration, particularly the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, has failed them, especially in housing support. This frustration is shared by people trying to help them.
“We feel hopeless,” Verrechia said of the ongoing struggle to house the newcomers. In New Haven, she said, the shelters are already full and had waiting lists before the Puerto Rican exodus.
The Junta manager in a recent interview spoke about a Puerto Rican who has Stage IV cancer and has no permanent home. His prognosis is that he has six months to live, she said, “and we have to get him a bed of his own before he dies so he can pass away with some dignity.” she said.
A judge recently ordered FEMA to extend its Temporary Shelter Assistance program that now is providing housing for three dozen families in Connecticut hotels and motels. The new deadline for these people to leave is Aug. 7. This hardly will help a woman, Verrechia said, who recently came to Junta seeking help because she is scheduled for surgery on August 9, two days after she has to be out of her temporary housing.
People have been “living in limbo,” going from one stopgap reprieve to another” with homelessness always lurking, said U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal at a recent press conference held in Hartford to focus on the housing crisis.
Moreover, Blumenthal said these three dozen families living under FEMA’s Temporary Shelter Assistance program are only the tip of the proverbial iceberg with lots of households finding short term shelter from friends and families and what the senator called “couch surfing.”
U.S. Senator Christopher Murphy, also at the press conference, cited the psychological damage to families and children who “wake up each day knowing their president doesn’t care about them.”
“Out of sight, out of mind is the message from No. 45 (President Trump),” said Wildaliz Bermudez, a member of the Hartford city council, during a recent press conference in Hartford focusing on the housing crisis. She added that the  the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) needs to provide housing vouchers through its Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). “This was used in New Orleans, Texas and Florida after disasters, but not in Puerto Rico.?” she said.
Some of the evacuees have become what Bermudez called the “invisible homeless.” These people find temporary shelter with family and friends but are forced to go from place to place, often due to unsympathetic landlords. “On the fourteenth of every month they are told ‘you can’t stay here,’” she said.
Bermudez questioned why HUD  has been slow to provide housing vouchers through its Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). “This was used in New Orleans, Texas and Florida after disasters, but not in Puerto Rico.”
For some Puerto Ricans, leaving the island was a life-saving decision. They could not get treatment at home for chronic illnesses or needed transplants because many hospitals and clinics were closed or themselves on life support. In addition, the erratic resumption of power also has posed a public health issue, Verrechia said. People going through dialysis suddenly have had the electricity stop, she said.
Verrechia also said a need has been arising among refugees for treatment of infectious diseases, including bladder and esophagus infections, likely resulting from the lack of clean running water in some areas of the island. Junta, she said, has been fortunate that Yale New Haven Hospital and the Fair Haven Health Center have been largely absorbing the cost for medical treatment including cancer care and surgery.
Since September, Junta has served more than a thousand people, Verrechia said. “We have had some success stories helping people find permanent housing and jobs,” she said, noting that the New Haven organization also has run up a $200,000 deficit in its relief programs and was negatively impacted by cuts in state aid due to recent budget crises.
Some cases have proven more difficult as typified by Ana Garcia, who came to Connecticut with her family, including two teenage girls, from Fajardo, a small resort city on the island’s east coast, an area devastated by Hurricane Maria. Since October, Garcia has gone through five temporary homes and is running out of options.
The next step could be homelessness, said Verrechia, who explained that all the shelters in New Haven are packed and there is a waiting list. She noted that one Puerto Rican had driven north in her car and that is where she was living.
Garcia was nearly in tears as she told of her plight and that of those still in Puerto Rico at the senator’s press conference. She said one woman saw her husband die because there was no power for his dialysis machine and she had to bury him in the backyard.
Bermudez also noted that some of the families who received temporary shelter in Hartford are now living on their own and have their own apartments. “Unfortunately the FEMA cases for the vast majority have been denied,” she said.
New Haven, Bridgeport and Hartford, with large Hispanic communities, have been receiving the most people displaced by the hurricane. All three cities quickly set up emergency assistance centers, but those in Hartford and Bridgeport are now closed and assistance is being provided through local agencies and through referrals from the United Way’s multi-lingual 2-1-1 service.
Junta also serves as a clearinghouse and provides referrals to various help agencies and to mental health and medical clinics. The center is also is busy providing other services, such as distributing food and clothing, providing job training, and computer and English language classes. Junta also has tapped into its own funds, running up a $200,000 deficit, to offer some cash assistance to evacuees, including funding security deposits for housing and drivers licenses, and in some instances, helping with funeral costs.
Verrechia said the relief center also tries to intervene in situations where a landlord wants people evicted because they exceed the occupancy set for an apartment.
Periodically, the Junta center, which is located on Grand Avenue in the Fair Haven section, receives clothing from local charities and food from several sources, including Trader Joe’s and from the New Haven chapter of Food Rescue U.S., a national organization that pairs supermarkets, bakeries, and specialty food stores with organizations in need of food.
When a new shipment of food is delivered, it is gone within a couple hours, Verrechia said.
The public and charitable organizations can help, Verrechia said, by donating gift cards to food stores so that that people can purchase food attuned to their culture. She said donations of diapers and other baby items are needed and the medical staff would appreciate canes and toilet seats for the elderly.
Hartford’s Relief Center for Our Caribbean Friends closed in early March when its lease ran out and it faced a $30,000 monthly rent. Since then, the Puerto Rican arrivals have been sent to non-profit agencies. These include a program that Lilly Herrera helped implement, Bermudez said, working with the Franciscan Center in Hartford to shelter families no longer supported by FEMA and to provide wrap-around services and case work.
In Bridgeport, the relief center coordinated by Rose Correa at the American Jobs Center handled more than 300 cases involving about 1,200 people, Appleby said. When the influx of new arrivals began to drop off in March and April, the city reconsidered what it was doing with a concern that a safety net still persist, the city official said.
“We are still involved,” Appleby said, but the city now directs new arrivals to the appropriate agencies and uses the 2-1-1 program as a clearinghouse. The city also is working with state officials, Blumenthal and U.S. Rep. James Himes to pursue additional help from the federal government.
The 2-1-1 service, which is operated by the United Way of Connecticut, has played a major role in getting refugees help. Since September, the state-supported program  has received 5,000 calls related to the Hurricane Maria disaster, with  some of the calls involving multiple requests, said Annie Scully, the agency’s communication liaison. People have been asking how to get food, clothing, second language assistance and how to enroll their children in school. There also are dire need situations, where people are referred to disaster case managers, Scully said.
“We are well aware of the resources across the state,” Scully said, with links to numerous health and human service programs. The 2-1-1 line receives calls from displaced Puerto Rican evacuees every day, but the volume has declined, she said.
While the influx of Puerto Ricans seeking respite in Connecticut has slackened in recent months, it has hardly ceased. “Every week there are new people. We average five new families a week,” Verrechia said.
In addition, the various relief agencies are holding their breaths that the there will not be another major exodus from Puerto Rico in September as a result of nearly 300 public schools being closed recently on the financially stressed island, and that month being the peak of the North Atlantic hurricane season. “People don’t want to be there for another hurricane,” Appleby said.
Verrechia is optimistic that the state legislature will soon allocate money for Junta’s ongoing assistance efforts. “This has bipartisan support” she said, explaining that “this type of situation brings people together.”
She said, “I am lucky to be in Connecticut,” a feeling that people helping the thousands who have come to this state in Maria’s wake will be able to share one day.