A Year Later: How Puerto Ricans New to NYC Are Faring

Janet Guzman (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

[Editor’s note: In a series of articles, El Diario marked one year since Hurricane María tore across the island of Puerto Rico. Reporters checked in with evacuees who settled in New York, summarized local and state efforts to help, and covered a City Council call for FEMA’s response to be investigated. Below are excerpts from a story by Edwin Martínez.]

Last December, Yaneth Guzmán, (…) 53, was forced to say goodbye to her native Puerto Rico and flew to New York with her two teenage boys to escape the pain and tragedy that Hurricane María left behind. (…)

“My life has changed a lot in the last year. I went from having a life in Fajardo – where I was a cashier at a store and was fine with my two boys – to having nothing and, now, to having something,” said Guzmán, who has lived in a shelter since Sept. 14, when FEMA stopped paying for her hotel. She says that she feels at home.

“Here, at least we have a clean place and feel safe. Even though there are only two small beds in the bedroom – I sleep in one of them and the boys in the other – we do not feel abandoned,” she said, relieved. “The only problem is that we don’t have a kitchen or a fridge, and we have to spend a lot eating out.”

Although she admitted that she cannot erase the pain of the hurricane and the loss, she said that she is grateful to New York City and to community organizers such as Sonia Velásquez.

“She helped me have somewhere to sleep and get a six-month contract with the Department of Sanitation. Now, all we are hoping for is that they can help us out with housing, because we are not going back to Puerto Rico unless we have to,” said Guzmán. “This city has saved us. [The boys] are in school, they really like it here and, even though we still have a long way to go, all we have in our minds is to move forward.”


The Gonzalez-Cruz family (Photo courtesy of Liz Cruz)

Tough time adapting

[Below are excerpts from a story by Marielis Acevedo.]

On Dec. 7, Liz Cruz, her three children and her husband, Elvin González, left their home in Isabela, Puerto Rico, after the devastation caused by Hurricane María. (…)

Cruz, 35, and her children – who are 14, 15 and 17 – are asthmatic. Their home flooded and was full of mold. They also had no money for food.

(…) “With just a few bucks” in their pockets, the family arrived in New York City in the middle of winter (…). Since they had no money to buy MetroCards and use public transportation, (…) they walked two and a half hours from the Fairfield Inn & Suites hotel where they were staying in Lower Manhattan to the Julia de Burgos Center in El Barrio. In October, the city had set up a temporary case management space for people displaced by María. It is no longer active.

“I was afraid, very afraid. Would we have anything to eat? Would we survive? (…)” she said.

The center provided them with winter coats and subway cards, and the parents were able to present their case to representatives from the agencies that were supposed to help them settle in the city, including the city’s Housing Authority and the Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance – to obtain food stamps.

However, almost a year has passed, and Cruz and her family have moved from fear to disappointment to impotence.

Cruz’s husband, who is 28, is the only one who has found work, but the $13 per hour he earns as a janitor is not enough to support the family of five. The couple and the minors have lived in a city shelter since late June, when some of FEMA’s home assistance programs expired, and have not been able to find a stable and safe home. (…)

“It is worse now. We did not come here to live off the system,” she said, “[but] why can’t they help us the way they do with other cases in the United States, when we are U.S. citizens? Why can’t my children have the right to advance like normal kids and have a normal home?” (…)

To New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS) spokeswoman Lilah Mejía, who is currently handling the cases of some 2,000 Puerto Rican families who arrived after the catastrophe, the story of the González-Cruzes is not an exception but the rule. Mejía spoke about the lawsuit filed by organization LatinoJustice to get FEMA to extend the time Puerto Ricans were allowed to stay in hotels.

On Sept. 14, the last period expired for the 987 families still housed in lodgings paid for by the federal agency. Mejía said that, after the end of the last extension obtained through legal means, the only option left for the people living there was to move to shelters managed by the city, like the González-Cruz family did, or return home.

“(…) If Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, why are they receiving this treatment? If you look at other cases, such as Sandy, families were given up to 28 months of housing in FEMA hotels. For other incidents, they have had even more time, so giving these families eight months is unfair,” said Mejía.


New York Keeps its Promise to Victims

[Below are excerpts from a story by Edwin Martínez.]

On Thursday, on the first anniversary of Hurricane María, New York City and State said that they have kept their promise not to abandon Puerto Ricans and that they remain committed to standing with the victims. (…)

The city told El Diario that it has helped more than 2,500 Puerto Rican families so far, 1,200 of which were connected with housing services. They also revealed that there are 187 Puerto Rican families and 543 evacuees in shelters, where they receive assistance contacting city agencies for guidance on topics such as housing, education, health, job training and social services.

“We will continue offering shelter and services to all evacuees who entered the DHS system who have no other place to go, and to the evacuees of the federal TSA hotels who need housing because of the new federal deadline,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, spokeswoman for the de Blasio administration. She added that the Big Apple will support Puerto Ricans in light of the lack of federal assistance.


The administration of Gov. Cuomo shares this position, and pointed out that the state has invested almost $13 million to help more than 11,000 people displaced by Hurricane María who sought protection in New York. They added that part of their commitment with the victims is an initial investment of $2 million through organizations looking to connect vulnerable Puerto Ricans with basic services, such as employment, housing, information on benefits and medical care.

(…) Regarding younger victims, the governor’s spokeswoman said that $1 million was invested in management services for cases of displacement and $10 million in job training and placement programs. She also pointed out that 255 displaced students have enrolled in CUNY colleges and 137 in SUNY.


Julio López-Varona, campaign director at the Center for Popular Democracy (CPD), said that, because the federal government has indeed been inconsiderate to victims and failed to meet its obligations, “local governments must provide the necessary assistance, whether it is housing, jobs or education. Local governments cannot look the other way when the federal government takes vouchers away from the families who ended up in hotels and now have no home.” (…)

Sonia Velásquez, director of Your Network Caring Community Advocate, accompanied 32 victims who had to leave their hotels on Sept. 14.

“I can say that the mayor’s office has not failed them in terms of shelter and housing. They have kept their word. However, in terms of jobs, nothing has been done,” said the activist. “About the [NY] governor, I’d rather not say anything. While he has done an enormous job on behalf of Puerto Rico, the same cannot be said about the way evacuees have been treated here.”

City to Trump: Investigate FEMA

[Below are excerpts from a story by Pablo Ayerra.]

(…) New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson sent a letter to President Donald Trump requesting the creation of a commission to evaluate the federal government’s inadequate response to the disaster.

(…) The letter, which was backed by more than 40 council members, criticizes the fact that the response of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) is unequal to its handling of Hurricane Harvey when it hit Texas just one month earlier.

(…) At the end of the letter, Johnson appeals to Trump directly: “Mr. President, almost 3,000 Americans died. The figure exceeds that of the 1,833 deaths caused by Katrina and matched those of 9/11. How can you continue turning your back on so many Americans?”


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