Puerto Rico Relief Centers Rely On Cooperation Of Existing Resources – But Can Use More Donations



Photo credit: United Way of Coastal Fairfield County
Photo credit: United Way of Coastal Fairfield County

Bill Sarno/CTLatinoNews.com
With hundreds of families and children from hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands pouring into Connecticut, several cities that are bearing the brunt of the influx have assembled an array of resources to help the storm victims, as well as the local families that are sheltering them.
These relief programs have been designed as one-stop operations where the new arrivals can obtain donated clothing, food and baby supplies to meet their immediate needs.  The hurricane survivors also are being connected to a broad array of organizations that will provide on-site access and referrals to job search and training, mental health counseling, community IDs, English as a Second Language classes and registration with the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
The relief centers generally have no funds to dole out, and whatever supply of gift cards and vouchers they have received as donations is quickly used up.  However, what makes these programs  tick is the cooperation of a broad lineup of services and support agencies.
Another plus has been the involvement and leadership of people who have the experience and ability to quickly identify what the displaced families require to sustain themselves.
“If  people need coats immediately, we will send them to the Salvation Army,” said Rosa Correa, director of Bridgeport’s relief center, which is based in space provided by the American Jobs Center on Lafayette Square. “We are essentially a clearinghouse,” she said.
In Hartford, the hurricane survivors are receiving help at  the Centro de Ayuda Para Nuestros Amigos Caribenos (Help Center for our Caribbean Friends), which like the Bridgeport center, opened Nov. 1. The Capitol Regional Educational Center is coordinating this program, which is expected to run several months, and has donated space in the former Two Rivers High School at 15 Van Dyke Ave.
The Hartford center is a partnership among CREC, Capital Workforce Partners, the Hartford Public Library, Charter Oak Health Center, and Catholic Charities Institute for the Hispanic Family, which is providing case managers and family specialists.
One of the major bumps in the road for the relief process is a shortage of housing, especially in New Haven, where there is no emergency housing from FEMA and a waiting list for the local shelters.
While the federal Transitional Shelter Assistance program has designated several hotels in Connecticut where storm survivors who have registered with FEMA can receive vouchers that cover rent and taxes, there is an issue of availability.
However,  most of the TSA hotel rooms are full, including the one in New Haven, said Paolo Serrecchia of the Junta for Progressive Action, which is playing a major role in the Elm City’s relief effort.
Joseph Rodriquez, Senator Richard Blumenthal’s deputy state director, explained, “As hotels get booked TSA is supposed to add to the list, but it doesn’t always happen that way.”
Connecticut, with its large, established Hispanic population, is one the primary destinations for Puerto Ricans, including retirees who are returning north to live with their children. U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Esty recently told a gathering of local activists, educators and government leaders at the Casa Boricua in Meriden that Connecticut is one of the top three states where the displaced Puerto Ricans are going. Florida and New York are the most popular destinations for the thousands of people leaving the island every week.
With the displaced Puerto Ricans arriving almost daily in Connecticut, it did not take long for the relief centers, which generally are open two or three days a week, to become hubs of activity. More than 200 families sought assistance from Centro de Ayuda during its initial week of operation, 122 on the first Saturday that its doors were open.
The Bridgeport Center also had an active first week with 65 families seeking help, said Correa, who works closely with Scott Appleby, the city’s director of emergency management.
In New Haven, the Junta-coordinated relief program helped more than 45 families during its first few days of operation.
A key factor in the effectiveness of these aid endeavors is that they are cooperative ventures involving city emergency and welfare services, the local school systems, the Red Cross, established charities, universities, hospitals and health agencies as well as state and federal lawmakers.
The City of New Haven is treating the influx of storm victims as it would an emergency, explained Will Serio, communications director for U.S. Rep. Rosa of Delauro. About two dozen local officials and agency representatives meet twice a week to address the newcomer’s education, health and housing needs.
Working through Junta, the New Haven agencies have developed an intake system or, as Serrechia explains, a triage process. This includes  tracking the number of people in a family, registering  them with FEMA,  helping with local housing paperwork and providing  medical attention and other services essential to the transitioning family.
“People in New Haven have been beautiful,” said Serrecchia. The program director several organizations have become involved and are supplying services such as health care, English instruction and even diapers. “Yale New Haven Hospital has been wonderful,” Serrecchia said. “They have been taking in people even if they have no insurance.”
The Bridgeport relief center is being managed by Career Resources Inc., an agency headed by Scott Wilderman that serves over 30,000 job seekers annually. Other partners are The WorkPlace and Department of Labor. Mayor Joseph Ganim, U.S. Senators Chris Murphy and Blumenthal, Congressman Jim Himes and Mickey Herbert, the chief executive of the Bridgeport Business Council, attended the opening ceremony.
Correa’s efforts have been brightened by help received from diverse sources, including a woman who dropped off a bag full new scarves and socks, the Maturity Works agency, which has assigned someone to work with her staff, and the building’s landlord who has donated a room where donated supplies can be stored.
She also said Blumenthal, Murphy and Himes have been very helpful with their staffs providing information and connection to various resources.
Many  of the storm victims arrive at the relief centers through referrals from the Red Cross, charitable organizations and local school districts, who suddenly find themselves with dozens of new students. information on where to obtain help is also available through the state’s 2-1-1 phone system and its website www.211.ct.org.
Red Cross personnel have been meeting many of the displaced families who often arrive by plane and help  them register for FEMA for individual assistance, which could take weeks to process. The new arrivals also can call the FEMA Assistance Line at 1-800-621-3362 or register online at www.disasterassistance.gov.
Those heading toward Hartford also receive bilingual cards with information about Centro de Ayuda, its hours and on-site, one-stop help programs, which includes case management. There is a phone number, 860-422-7095; an email address, reliefcenter@CREC.org; and a website, www.CREC.org/relief center.
Organizations already well-known in the Hispanic community such as the Center for Latino Progress on Park Street in Hartford also are directing the new arrivals to the relief centers. “People are calling and we refer them to resources and off them the opportunity to register for our ESL classes,” said Yanil Teron, the center’s director.
Still, the demand for help can exceed what is readily available and is expected to grow, especially in regard to affordable housing as well as winter clothing. Both the Bridgeport and Hartford relief centers are looking for donations of gift cards which enable the displaced families to buy clothing if the center does not have their sizes, Alvarado said.
Correa also is very particular that any clothing contributed be in good shape and clean. “These people do not have the money to take clothes to the cleaners,” she said.
Among the biggest needs at the Centro de Ayuda is men’s winter clothing as well as boots for all age groups and hygiene items. People want to help are being asked to schedule drop-off times with by calling Alvarado at (860) 524-4065. Centro de Ayuda is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays  and Wednesdays  and 9 a.m to 1 p.m. on Saturdays.
What looms as the biggest test for the relief centers is finding affordable housing for the displaced families. Correa has encountered one situation in which 13 newcomers have been crowded into a small home and needs to find its own space.
There also are cases in which the newcomers face homelessness because their hosts are being threatened with eviction by landlords who have seen their utility costs skyrocket because of the extra residents.
Serrecchia said one of the worst scenarios involves a family of five that has been squeezed into a relatives one bedroom apartment with one of the children paralyzed and being nourished by a feeding tube. This displaced family faces eviction and homelessness unless housing is found.
Another difficult case involves a father who is on dialysis nine hours a day and does not find out until 7 p.m. where he and his wife are going to sleep that night, Serrecchia said.
The city has shelters for the homeless, but there already is a waiting list. “We do not want to jump ahead of these people,” Serrecchia said, but she added a solution will be found.  “We will get it done,” she said.
Ultimately, those organizations focusing on rebuilding Puerto Rico want to get these displaced U.S. citizens back to their own homes to avoid depopulating the islands, but there also is an acceptance that some  will elect to stay on the mainland.
In the meantime, the relief operations want to enable the storm victims to successfully transition to their new surroundings without placing a great burden on their hosts and the cities where they have relocated. “This is for our communities, even for those who are not Puerto Rican,” Correa said.