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On March 5, nearly three months after landing at John F. Kennedy Airport on a flight from Puerto Rico, 29-year-old Daiza Aponte finally moved into a hotel room with a kitchenette.
Soon after Aponte and her two young daughters arrived in New York last December, the Federal Emergency Management Agency placed them, along with dozens of other Puerto Rican families fleeing the island in the wake of Hurricane Maria, in a Holiday Inn Express overlooking the Major Deegan Expressway in the Bronx. Hotel management refused to let the families bring food to their rooms, recalls Aponte, and her toddler daughter didn’t have a crib. She fell out of bed three times.
Now, FEMA has transferred Aponte to the quiet Pointe Plaza Hotel just north of Flushing Avenue in Hasidic Williamsburg. “It’s like a studio,” Aponte told the Voice in Spanish on a recent afternoon at a Brooklyn pizza shop. One-year-old Alannys slept in her stroller, tucked into a pink snowsuit, while three-year-old Enrielys climbed under the table. “If you need pots, spoons, they’ll give it to you. I can ask for a sheet and they’ll give me one.”
Aponte is determined to stay in New York City, where her children, who both have asthma, receive better healthcare than they did in Puerto Rico. But she knows that her current living situation is temporary. FEMA was housing 225 Puerto Rican families in hotels in New York State as of March 13, according to the agency. Its Transitional Shelter Assistance Program has been extended until May 14 at the request of Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló, but only for families who qualify based on FEMA’s inspections of their homes back on the island. FEMA also offers rental assistance on a case-by-case basis, but the amount is based on rents in the area where the disaster took place.
Aponte says she’s been offered $550 per month for six months. So far, apartment hunting in New York at that price has been futile. “Everything I’ve found is $1,200 and up, for just one room,” she says. “We lost our homes there, and then came here to end up in the street.”
After Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio was explicit that there isn’t enough affordable housing in New York City to accommodate families who couldn’t stay on the island. More than 63,000 New Yorkers already sleep in shelters each night as of January, and the rental vacancy rate is a sobering 3.6 percent. “I don’t want to encourage people to come here if they don’t have some family to turn to,” de Blasio told CBS’s Marcia Kramer in October. “I think we have to be really clear about that.”
To address other needs, the city launched an emergency service center at the Julia De Burgos Performance and Arts Center in East Harlem that welcomed more than 2,500 households from Puerto Rico, Texas, Florida, and the Virgin Islands seeking free, bilingual legal counsel and mental health services; winter clothing; and applications for food assistance and Medicaid.
But the emergency center quietly shut down on February 9. Now, nonprofit emergency response organizations and advocates for the Puerto Rican community say City Hall should form a task force to correct issues that have cropped up over and over in recent months, such as a lack of sympathetic translators at Human Resources Administration offices, and insufficient job training and legal assistance for families seeking to challenge FEMA denials. In fact, the city should have circled the wagons months ago, they say, so families would be more prepared to look for their own housing come spring.
Jonathan Soto worked at City Hall until late January as director of de Blasio’s Center for Faith and Community Partnerships. He was tasked with helping set up the city’s emergency center, but left for a job at Union Theological Seminary after realizing he could “do more on the outside.” Soto believes a task force could have helped the city coordinate with councilmembers in districts with large Puerto Rican populations, like the Lower East Side and Sunset Park. With multiple service centers, he says, families wouldn’t have had to make the daunting commute to East Harlem.
“The problem is going to get worse before it gets better,” says Soto. “When FEMA assistance runs out, where are those folks going to go? The existing shelter system.”
Many people who fled Puerto Rico after the storm are running through their savings, he notes, and the island is still a long way from a full recovery. “People are going to make the wager to stay here, putting a bigger strain on nonprofits and welfare,” he says. “I don’t think the city has a contingency plan.”
Health and Human Services Deputy Mayor Herminia Palacio said at a recent press conference that City Hall closed the emergency services center after “the influx of people evacuating … slowed.” She urges Puerto Ricans to instead seek help at any of the 24 Homebase offices across the city, which provide New Yorkers at risk of homelessness with emergency rental assistance and financial counseling.
“Folks should certainly know that they can walk into any Homebase and get a full array of services,” Palacio told reporters at a recent press conference. HRA also granted the nonprofit Catholic Charities $180,000 to assist Puerto Rican families already in the shelter system with Medicaid, SNAP, and FEMA applications at four Homebase offices in the Bronx.
But advocates worry the issue is a lack of advertising, not a lack of need. “At the beginning the Julia De Burgos Center was promoted very well. They allowed all of the newspapers and cameras to come in,” says Lilah Mejia, a coordinator with New York Disaster Interfaith Services. Her nonprofit had a table there, and distributed winter clothing and MetroCards. “As time went on it kind of died down and people forgot,” she says.
Aponte never made it to the service center. Instead, she says, she made two futile attempts to acquire cash assistance, complicated by the language barrier and her lack of sufficient documentation. HRA requires proof of the number of people living in an applicant’s household, and Aponte’s TSA paperwork doesn’t list her children. During one visit to HRA’s 300 Canal Place center in the South Bronx, she says, Alannys started coughing and a staff member accused her of spreading the flu. “She hung up on the translator, and I had to communicate there as best as I could,” Aponte recalls. “That was really hard. I left there crying. I felt nervous.”
HRA declined to comment on Aponte’s case, citing privacy rules. A spokesperson tells the Voice, “We are doing everything we can to help evacuees from areas impacted by major storms last year, working diligently and as fast as possible to help them get back on their feet.”
As of February 8, according to HRA, 49 percent of storm victims’ cash aid requests and 54 percent of SNAP requests were approved and active. HRA said that some cases were closed because applicants left New York or got jobs that made them ineligible, but did not break down the data further.
“You hear the HRA nightmares,” says Mejia. Since the emergency center closed, she has a skeleton crew operating on Tuesdays and Thursdays out of the Church of the Holy Agony on Third Avenue in East Harlem. “People treat you unjust,” she says. “So families return [to us] because they knew they could come to a warm friendly face. Where we would embrace and assist them.”
Advocates have also accused the city of failing to disseminate information about New York’s housing crisis to Puerto Rican families. Maisha Morales is a program coordinator at Good Old Lower East Side, a nonprofit that fights displacement in that neighborhood. For several weeks following Hurricane Maria, she says, Puerto Rican families would show up at her office seeking housing assistance, on the recommendation of volunteers at the Julia De Burgos Center. She had no choice but to send most of them back uptown.
“Of course it’s heartbreaking,” says Morales. “We tried our best as far as informing them what’s out there — understanding what a housing lottery is, and that you would need a certain income bracket to qualify. Most of them didn’t have jobs, so they didn’t qualify for it.”
Without reliable housing, says 28-year-old Raul Grajales, everything else falls apart. His $200-per-month studio apartment in Canóvanas, with a rooftop view of El Yunque National Forest to the east and the beach at Isla Verde to the west, was completely destroyed in Hurricane Maria. He left Puerto Rico and moved in with a friend in Queens in October, but quickly realized that “there was basically no space between us.”
Grajales eventually responded to a Craigslist ad for a bedroom in Washington Heights and agreed to pay $550 for two weeks. The roommates disappeared after a week and the heat and electricity were cut off, a cruel reminder of the situation he’d left behind. “I was like, I should have stayed in PR. What the fuck am I doing?” he recalls.
Grajales ended moving in with some sympathetic neighbors for $650 per month. He established a routine, helping a roommate sell flowers out of a shopping cart. (He says his seven years of experience in food service meant nothing in New York, where restaurants asked for at least a year of local experience.) He was glad to be in a diverse city, he says: “I may not have enough money to travel the world, but New York brings the world to you. I met Jamaicans, I met a lot of Mexicans, I met Dominicans, Taiwanese, people from everywhere. That’s pretty nice.”
“I also chose New York because I wouldn’t need a car,” he says. “People complain a lot about the MTA, but hey, at least it’s something.”
Even so, on March 4 Grajales flew home to his parents’ house in Bayamón with the last of his two years’ savings. “I knew it was going to be difficult,” he says. “But I was unforgivably naive.”
On March 13, First Lady Chirlane McCray hosted a press conference at the headquarters of the Hispanic Federation in lower Manhattan to announce a $100,000 grant for mental health services in Puerto Rico. Later that afternoon, she flew to the island for a day of touring. During a Q&A session following the announcement, Deputy Mayor Palacio told the Voice that City Hall has “no plans for a task force explicitly” to address gaps in aid for Puerto Rican evacuees in New York City.
“On the island they’re doing great work,” Mejia of NYDIS said afterwards. “But what about our families here in the city?”
Now that the service center is closed, volunteers are stepping up to assist Puerto Ricans for free. Victor Martinez, a Puerto Rico native from the Bronx, created the website Diaspora X Puerto Rico in October with his wife, Surey Miranda. It links out to subway maps, details about emergency Medicaid and shelter, and job boards. “We use Facebook,” he explains. “We are only four volunteers, and we have been able to contact around 200 people since two weeks after the hurricane.”
Martinez adds, “Apart from talking to people about what they need, we try to have a conversation with them. To know a little bit more about their stories, what they went through.”
Evacuees are also helping each other. Aponte’s friend Axel Reyes, a 42-year-old father of three, came to New York with his family after the hurricane destroyed his restaurant in Coamo. His children’s school shut down and his home lost potable water. He has lived in New York City before and speaks fluent English, so he’s helped other FEMA families, sharing his knowledge about the subway and public assistance.
“We try to help everyone,” he says. “One for all, and all for one.”
Reyes, who’s staying in the same hotel as Aponte, tells the Voice that he doesn’t qualify for a FEMA extension through mid-May because inspectors haven’t been able to assess damages. (He doesn’t have family or friends in Puerto Rico to let the inspectors inside.) He says he’s received notice to move out of the hotel on Tuesday, six months to the day after the hurricane hit Puerto Rico. A FEMA spokesperson says extensions are available for some families, but stressed that allowances are made on a case-by-case basis. Reyes has been working five days a week, commuting to a steelworking job in the Bronx nearly three hours each way, but doesn’t have enough saved to rent an apartment. “My kids aren’t taking it too good,” he says.
Yet he’s determined to stay in New York. Reyes proudly shows the Voice pictures of two certificates his fifteen-year-old daughter has received at her new school in the Bronx: perfect attendance and honor roll.
Back in Coamo, he says, there’s “no food, no water, no school, no light, no nothing. So I made the choice.”
“And my choice turned out to be right,” he adds. “I’m working. I’m feeding my kids. I don’t have a stable home for them, no, I do not, but they’re eating every day.”
Additional reporting by Felipe De La Hoz
To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.