When the directors of the Hogar Nueva Mujer women’s shelter in Cayey, Puerto Rico, told employees that they could take shelter at the facility as Hurricane Irma approached last September, none of them expected that they would end up becoming refugees at their own workplace.
But in the more than three months since Hurricane Maria swept across Puerto Rico two weeks after Irma — causing widespread devastation and long-lasting power outages, especially in the central mountains where Hogar Nueva Mujer is located — the shelter has been left to simultaneously support the women fleeing violence whom it normally houses, while also providing aid to its own employees and neighbors who have been without basic services since the storm.
Hogar Nueva Mujer has spent the last 26 years providing emergency shelter for women in imminent danger of violence. Today, the organization is shifting from focusing on emergency shelter to incorporate transitional housing into its services, as well as relocation programs, workshops, and counseling services, plus empowerment classes for children to prevent them from becoming either victims or perpetrators of gender violence.
It’s a mission that’s been complicated by the destruction left in Maria’s wake. The shelter suffered structural damage and, like the rest of the island, lost power. Today, the organization remains without electricity and is running on a gas generator.
The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority — the Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, or AEE — is currently only generating about 65 percent of the energy the country needs to function. It’s not known exactly how many of the public corporation’s customers are currently without power — the AEE hasn’t provided figures — but it is estimated that less than half of the 1 million homes on the grid have power, and a number of municipalities remain totally in the dark.
Emmanuel Berríos Alejandro, 24, who works part-time at the organization as a mediator for the LGBT community and service coordinator, spent Hurricane Maria with his family at his grandmother’s home, as they were worried that the two trees that stood nearby might fall on the two-story concrete house Berríos shared with his mother and two nieces in a house in the town of Barranquitas. The reality surpassed their fears.
“At one point during the hurricane, my mom told me: ‘I think I just lost everything,’ ” says Berríos. “I thought that such a thing was impossible because the house was made of concrete. Maybe the water would come under the door and that kind of thing, but I never thought that what happened was possible.”
Berríos bursts into tears as he recalls, “When we got there, the house did not exist anymore.”
Berríos remembered that the women’s center had offered refuge to its employees, so he took his mother to the shelter. After she returned to her own mother’s house in Barranquitas to tell her what had happened, Berríos spent an entire week alone in the shelter, as his co-workers brought him food, water, and clothes.
After that week, in a moment of desperation, he decided to walk from the shelter in Cayey to his grandmother’s home in Barranquitas, approximately 17.5 miles of narrow, winding, steep roads. It took him seven hours to arrive, between walking and the rides that three drivers offered him along the way.
“It hit us really hard but, at the same time, it was a great satisfaction to be able to help Emmanuel and his family,” says Vilmarie Rivera Sierra, the shelter’s director. “Despite everything, we did not think as an organization that one of ours would be affected so closely by this. He lost everything.”
Berríos was the first and closest to home of the people that the staff of Hogar Nueva Mujer would help. They have not had a moment’s rest since.
Five days after the hurricane, all employees reported to work and went out into the streets with no idea what they would find, as the communications system had also collapsed. Week after week, they have continued to deliver food, water, and basic supplies to the more than eighty people who participate in their programs, as well as other members of the community. They distribute 225 bags of groceries per week.
“The shelter’s employees were born to serve,” says Rivera. “When you are born to serve, you put your personal situation aside to help others. I know that I have a really committed team. On occasion, because we depend on federal funds, their checks come late, but even then they continue to work with the same dedication.”
Rivera says she wasn’t surprised that her staff pitched in to work after the hurricane. “We also know that the population we serve does not have the resources, they do not have families,” she says. “Some of the women in the programs would not have anything to eat if it wasn’t for us.”
Rivera says the shelter has observed an increase in cases of gender violence in the country since Maria. She attributes the spike to a number of factors, including increased unemployment as well as the emotional and mental imbalance that resulted from losing essential services such as water and electricity for extended periods of time.
“Financial issues, having no plan to tackle what comes next, and the decay of people’s mental and emotional health caused by the lack of services are all factors that will operate as triggers for this type of behavior,” Rivera says.
The center’s workers have reached out to their neighbors to address these broader impacts of the storm, assisting people who were not participants of their shelter’s programs. Since the federal funding the center receives can only be used for approved purposes, this meant turning to the local community for help. Hogar Nueva Mujer has seen expressions of solidarity from every level, from private citizens to other nonprofits and large companies.
“Puerto Ricans feel solidarity, and they give what they have,” says Rivera. “Everyone we asked has helped us — we have never received a ‘no’ for an answer.”
In order to keep the shelter’s generator running, the organization launched a project called Laundry Solidario — “Solidarity Laundromat” — to add revenue on top of donations. People pay a suggested donation of $2 to wash and $5 to dry their clothes per load at the center’s washers and dryers. No one is denied service, regardless of ability to pay. The money helps the center cover its $500 in expenses on gas for the generator every two weeks.
It was thanks to the Laundry Solidario that the center was able to reach Carmen Díaz, a 48-year-old woman who lost her home and her livelihood when the childcare center she ran had to close because of structural damage. Díaz went to the laundromat to wash her clothes and ended up receiving psychological counseling to help her bear the blow.
“It is overwhelming to lose everything in the blink of an eye,” says Díaz. “It is a very painful situation. I am really grateful for the psychological help I have received in the shelter and for the counseling they have given me to find housing and a job.”
Among the people outside of their programs’ participants that the staff has assisted, one of the most shocking cases is that of Ivonne Huertas. She lived with her four teenage children in a concrete house that lost its entire roof, leaving the family under the open sky and at the mercy of the sun and the rain.
The owners of a metal recycling company located across the street from the house lent her a broken-down school bus to stay in so they could at least have a roof over their heads. They also provided her with an extension cord to connect fans or lamps, but it would only work when the recycling plant was operating.
Huertas spent two and a half months living in the school bus before she arrived at Hogar Nueva Mujer.
“It was horrible, distressing,” says Huertas. “I was falling into a depression. My youngest son even wanted to go live with his father in Connecticut. It is very hard not to be able to give your children a safe place to live in.”
“The shelter’s assistance has been so good,” she adds. “They are always looking after us. It was such a great joy, so beautiful, to feel the certainty of having a safe place to go to.”
Three months after the hurricane hit, needs remain visible day after day in the homes of thousands of Boricuas. “This is a country where we have high poverty levels, and what we always knew has now become evident: that the poverty was lying beneath the surface,” says Rivera. “Maria has unveiled it.” Even knowing the country’s ongoing economic problems, she says, “we were not prepared for this. You had a zinc roof and thought you were safe. Now, there is no roof whatsoever.”
That’s why Hogar remains firm in its mission to help. The nonprofit, which depends entirely on federal funding and donations from individuals and organizations, accepts contributions through ATH Móvil, at (787) 263-6473, via PayPal ([email protected]), by mail (Hogar Nueva Mujer, P.O. Box 927, Cayey, Puerto Rico, 00737), or by making a deposit at Banco Popular, account #047018178.