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Displaced Puerto Ricans, now living in hotels, may soon lose housing

Hundreds of thousands of people in Puerto Rico have been displaced because of Hurricane Maria, with nearly 4,000 families finding temporary shelter in hotels on the mainland. But funding for their stays under FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program is set to expire in March. NewsHour Weekend's Ivette Feliciano traveled to Hartford, Connecticut, to speak with some of those families.

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  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    These days, this is a fairly typical start to the morning for the Rivera family in Hartford Connecticut. Millie Rivera gets her three daughters ready for breakfast before catching the school bus, and Israel Rivera will soon head to start his shift at a Hartford window factory.

    But it's taken months to have a routine or sense of normalcy. Since November, the family of five has been living out of a single room at a Red Roof Inn because their home in Puerto Rico was badly damaged by Hurricane Maria.

    Maria's winds ripped the roof off of the Rivera's small house in rural Ciales in central Puerto Rico. They say most of their appliances, furniture and family keepsakes were destroyed and that they have no insurance to cover their losses.

  • ISRAEL RIVERA:

    I'd love to have my house back the way it was. I put so much work into that home. For six years I worked so hard, everything I earned, I invested in that home. We had no luxuries, rarely went out, rarely spent. Just the basic necessities.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Yet the Rivera's consider themselves far luckier than their friends and family still on the island. Two days before Maria hit, Israel Rivera sold the family's two cars and, with savings, bought 5 plane tickets to the mainland.

  • ISRAEL RIVERA:

    I could have stayed, I'm an adult, I don't care. But i thought about my girls… The hurricane, the force with which it was coming, category 5, I said, 'this will destroy everything'. I imagined the chaos, the lines to buy water or gas. It was just with hurricane Irma and things got bad, there was no gas. Imagine something like Maria. I just knew it.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    He was right. Most of their town still has no power, and lines are down all over the Rivera's property. Their household is just one of more than 1.1 million displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

    Many survivors chose to come to places like Connecticut. The state has deep Puerto Rican roots, with waves of migration that date back to the 1940s. Here in Hartford, Connecticut's capitol, 34% of the population identifies as Puerto Rican.

    The Federal Emergency Management Agency has placed almost 4,000 families in hotels across 41 states and Puerto Rico, 168 of them in Connecticut. Most of the displaced filed claims with FEMA and are waiting to hear if they qualify for financial or other additional assistance.

    The Rivera's came to Hartford with about $1,000. With that money, Israel bought a car that cost $300, insurance, food, and warm clothing for the family. Israel found a job as a machine operator at the window factory within days of arriving that pays about $365 a week. But it wasn't enough…and the family was approved for food stamp assistance.

  • ISRAEL RIVERA:

    I am the type of person who doesn't wait for things to come to my doorstep. I believe in hard work. If you give me some help, I'll be grateful and I'll work hard to earn what I deserve.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    His wife Millie is taking English classes while she looks for part-time work. But Rivera says the transition to life on the mainland has proven difficult and expensive.

  • ISRAEL RIVERA:

    We came from Puerto Rico out of necessity, we can't go back home. I'm not saying anyone should give me free housing. I can pay something reasonable. But I can't pay a $1,000 rent when I only earn $1500. Sometimes I wonder where all the money goes, it isn't easy. But there is no stove here, no refrigerator, we eat out a lot.

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    In late December, the Rivera's were among more than 40 families at the hotel that faced potential eviction and homelessness. FEMA's transitional housing program was set to end by mid-January. But then FEMA extended the program through March 20th at the request of Puerto Rico's governor.

    Yet that was bittersweet news for the Rivera's and about 10 other families at the hotel because they didn't qualify for the extension.

    Rivera says FEMA denied his family's financial assistance claim, saying they had effectively refused federal help because, as they'd self-evacuated before the hurricane, no one was home when a FEMA inspector came to visit.

    Because of FEMA's decision, the Rivera's were no longer eligible for the transitional housing program. They were told they would still have to leave by mid-January. Other families were told the same. Some said hotel staff told them they had less than 24 hours to get out. FEMA told Newshour Weekend it gave 6 to 7 days advance notice to any families asked to leave their temporary housing.

    Meanwhile grassroots Puerto Rican activists and elected officials asked the State of Connecticut to step in.

    In mid-January, the state partnered with nonprofits like United Way and the Salvation Army, and allocated 100-thousand dollars to keep families like the Rivera's in the hotels through March 20th.

    But Connecticut Governor Dannel Malloy believes the Federal Government should have been playing a larger role in that effort.

  • DANNEL MALLOY:

    This is a different model that for some reason is being applied to the people of the Commonwealth that we have never applied to a state to state basis. Why don't we treat our fellow citizens living in Puerto Rico the same way we would treat folks living in New Jersey or New York or Washington, D.C.?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    FEMA says the transitional housing program is just one of several sheltering options available to displaced families. And this month, it provided Connecticut with 10 new Spanish speaking disaster-management case workers at the state's request.

    Malloy says the state could use even more case-workers, plus bilingual educators, and funds for affordable housing. Meanwhile, the Governor just asked for 400-thousand dollars in the state's proposed budget to support Maria evacuees. But it may not be enough to cover the costs. The state estimates it has welcomed between 3,500 to 5,000 displaced Puerto Ricans since Hurricane Maria. And the state's school system accommodated close to 2,000 new students from the Caribbean this school year.

  • DANNEL MALLOY:

    The nature of our response network in the United States – shouldn't be dependent on charity– and shouldn't be dependent on – state governments doing for citizens of other commonwealths or states the things that their government would otherwise do or their federal government would step in and help.

  • 211 CALL CENTER:

    Thank you for calling 211. My name is Annette. How can I help you?

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    Here in Hartford, an emergency response center, funded by the state and its partners, directs new arrivals to available social services.

    But for many families at the hotel, it is the grassroots efforts of Hartford's local Puerto Rican community that have been filling in the gaps where other resources are lacking.

    Every week from Monday through Thursday at this church in Hartford, volunteers prepare dinner for the families staying at the hotel.

    In November, the staff at the capitol region education council, a Connecticut non-profit focused on education, raised 150,000 dollars in private donations to launch a Hurricane Maria relief center in Hartford. Puerto Rican volunteers and local groups partnered with government agencies to create a one stop shop for new arrivals. Here they can receive everything from warm clothes and groceries to job leads.

  • AURA ALVARADO:

    The first month when everybody started coming– I mean, there were people arriving with no coat. I mean, I had a gentleman show up in sandals here and it was snowing that day. The families we've seen have come back at least two to three sometimes four times. And every time they come they sit with our case manager, 'cause we wanna do a follow-up. 'What have you done since the last time we saw you? What else do you need?'

  • IVETTE FELICIANO:

    At the relief center, new arrivals can apply for state id's, which allow them to apply for housing and jobs, as well as food and medical assistance programs. They can also get help from volunteers to navigate FEMA's housing claim system.

    That's something Rivera says is crucial. When FEMA denied his family's assistance request, he says they were caught in red tape and confusion for weeks.

    With the help of an English-speaking neighbor at the hotel, they finally learned they could appeal its decision. They were just granted about $4,500 that will go toward the rebuilding of their home in Ciales and some of their expenses in Hartford.

    Rivera would like to go back to his home. But he isn't sure that leaving Connecticut is the right move for him and his family.

  • ISRAEL RIVERA:

    If we are able to get some extra help here, I'd like to stay. Even before the storm there was barely any work, the situation was bad. Imagine now. With a little bit of help, my family and i can move forward.

    A study by the center for Puerto Rican studies at Hunter College estimates another 100 to 200 thousand Puerto Ricans will move to the u.s. mainland in the next twelve months. Most will settle in states with large Puerto Rican populations like Florida, Pennsylvania, New York…and Connecticut.

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