Hartford’s hurricane relief center was where evacuees from Puerto Rico could come to get help: help finding housing, jobs, winter clothing -- whatever supplies or services they needed to restart their lives in Connecticut.
The center closed last week, and to celebrate its work, the staff there held a dinner with traditional Puerto Rican music and food. A live band played, and volunteers served a warm meal of baked chicken, and rice with peas.
Juan Carlos Rodriguez joined dozens of other hurricane evacuees at the dinner to express his gratitude.
Speaking through a translator, Rodriguez said it’s because of the center that he was able to get ahead after relocating here alone from Puerto Rico.
He’s 23, and came here with a lot of anxiety about the move. With the relief center’s help, he was able to find a job at Home Goods -- and he’s been driving for Uber on the side. Now that his life is back on track, he plans to learn English, pursue a master’s degree, and apply for the police academy.
Aura Alvarado helped run the relief center. She said there’s still a lot of need -- over 20 new families came through that week.
“This is not over. This crisis is not over,” Alvarado said. “The island of Puerto Rico especially is not getting any better. So if things don’t continue to improve, people will leave, and they’re going to come to Connecticut.”
Alvarado said the center was intended to be a temporary program run by several nonprofits and the Capitol Region Education Council, a regional education organization that had some empty space in a former school. But their lease on the building ended in February, and it would cost $30,000 a month to continue to rent it -- money they don’t have.
“I think we all wish we could keep it open for a long time -- there’s still families coming,” Alvarado said.
Now that the center is closed, new arrivals will be sent directly to the nonprofits that can help. But for many evacuees, the building also served as a home base where they could find emotional support and a warm meal.
Emilio Camacho, 80, recently found an apartment in Hartford after relocating from Puerto Rico with his wife.
But before then, they lived in a hotel -- where the only food provided was a small breakfast. He said it’s because of the food the center gave them that he and his wife are still alive.
And now, after living through the aftermath of the hurricane the past six months, Camacho said he’s happy, because they’re finally settling down.
This story is part of “The Island Next Door,” WNPR’s reporting project about Puerto Rico and Connecticut after Hurricane Maria.