By Walker Strong, CTNewsJunkie
This story was reported under a partnership with the CT News Junkie
HARTFORD – On Friday, Gov. Ned Lamont announced the release of $75,000 in state funding to provide housing support and cover additional expenses incurred by families from Puerto Rico who have fled to Connecticut following the territory’s devastation from recent earthquakes.
Connecticut has a Puerto Rican population of more than 300,000, sixth largest by state in the US, and Hartford’s 42,000 residents make it the nation’s fifth-largest Puerto Rican city.
Connecticut has a close connection to the island, highlighted recently by support efforts in 2017 and 2018 following Hurricane Maria.
“When I go to the Island, people know about Connecticut, they know about the city of Hartford, which I call the Puerto Rican capital of the United States,” said state Rep. Edwin Vargas, a Hartford Democrat.
Lamont also highlighted the state’s connection to the island.
“For a lot of us, Puerto Rico is a part of Connecticut’s extended family,” he said.
Puerto Rico has been enduring daily earthquakes and aftershocks since Dec. 28, 2019.
The series of quakes – described by geologists as an “earthquake swarm” – has ravaged the southern central and southwest region of the island along the coast. The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) has tracked over 3,000 additional seismic activities with no end in sight. The worst quake on Jan. 7 recorded a magnitude of 6.4 and resulted in the declaration of a state of emergency.
According to the USGS, residents of the southern side of the island may feel shaking and continued aftershocks on a daily basis for the next two to six months, with some concerns lingering that the effects could last up to a decade.
In towns like Guanica, which is on the southwest coast, schools have been out of operation since Dec. 28.
State Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr., a Waterbury Democrat and Vice-Chair of the General Assembly’s Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, spoke to reporters Friday: “Schools are collapsed, people are living in baseball fields – it’s a real refugee camp situation.”
Lt. Gov. Susan Bysiewicz said the state has a responsibility to help people who have fled the island.
“For many families going back is not an option and Connecticut is their new home,” Bysiewicz said. “We have a responsibility to ensure that you have safe and secure public housing, education, and job opportunities right here in our beautiful state.”
The $75,000 grant will come from the Department of Housing and will be managed by Alpha Community Services in Bridgeport, Casa Otoñal in New Haven, Hispanic Coalition in Waterbury, and the San Juan Center in Hartford, according to Department of Housing Commissioner Seila Mosquera-Bruno.
Hartford Mayor Luke Bronin said refugees from the island are facing a tough transition, adding that the waiting lists for affordable housing are 4,000 names long, so families are doubling and tripling up in apartments. He said some will need to learn to speak English as well, and he was thankful for the guidance and support of the San Juan Center, among other organizations, for helping families arriving from the island.
“San Juan Center was at the forefront of providing open arms and support for families that came in the wake of Hurricane Maria, and I’m very grateful for them stepping up again,” Bronin said.
The state money will go toward security deposits, first month’s rent, and personal expenses in addition to helping many Puerto Ricans find jobs or begin learning English as a second language. Seen as an initial investment to get relief efforts underway quickly, the plan is for legislators to work with local organizations and nonprofits to seek matching investments in public-private partnerships.
“This is an investment from the administration that is augmented by what the nonprofits and others can do or match,” said Fernando Betancourt, executive director of the San Juan Center, adding that as more Puerto Rican citizens arrive, he plans to advocate for additional funding as needed.
Statistics revealed at the press conference show that 248 students have enrolled in Connecticut’s public school network, with 70 in Hartford and 69 in Waterbury schools alone. This number is expected to rise as the earthquakes continue and more data is gathered.
After Hurricane Maria in 2017, more than 200 new students enrolled in Waterbury’s school system. Three years later, 90 are still in those same schools, bringing attention to the longevity and permanent nature of the island’s disruption.
“The longer it takes to deliver relief and to rebuild, I think the more families we will see seeking to rebuild their lives here,” Bronin said.
Lamont’s announcement reinforces many philanthropic and community support efforts already underway throughout the state. Efforts to provide water, food, medical supplies, in addition to clothing and mental health counseling, aim to ease some the burdens felt by families in times of such uncertainty.
In addition to Hartford, cities like New Haven, Waterbury, and Bridgeport are opening their doors, allowing entry into local schools for kids as well as fundraising and providing temporary housing for families in need.
“I think this time the state of Connecticut is better prepared,” to receive refugees from the island than it was shortly after Maria, Reyes Jr. said.
Publisher’s Note: While the news cycle in the United States has been dominated by coverage from Washington, Puerto Rico has been struggling through multiple natural disasters, political turmoil, and ongoing protests. With over 300,000 Puerto Rican residents in Connecticut, CTNewsJunkie and CTLatinoNews are collaborating to help our readers understand the severity of the crisis on the island, and how it is impacting both the commonwealth and our state. Here is the third story in our occasional series: