Money that almost went back to the state is now in the hands of survivors of Hurricane Maria.
A nonprofit tasked with putting money to work to help Puerto Rican evacuees has announced that it’s finally given out the entire $500,000 it got in funding from the Connecticut General Assembly.
“We’ve been able to assist over 1,200 people who were evacuated from Puerto Rico due to Hurricane Maria and provided them with really critical housing assistance so that they wouldn’t fall into homelessness and they could actually achieve stable homes here in Connecticut,” said Richard Cho, the CEO of the Connecticut Coalition To End Homelessness.
Cho, local leaders in the Puerto Rican community, and Puerto Rican evacuees hosted the governor at the Catholic Charities, Institute for the Hispanic Family in Hartford Tuesday so that they could brief him on the state’s response to receiving a wave of evacuees from the island in 2017.
Cash was set aside so that survivors could collect up to $5,000 in disaster assistance per family. But earlier this year, with about 80 days to go before the funding reverted back to the state, CCEH told Connecticut Public Radio that nearly half of the appropriated funds remained unclaimed.
On Tuesday, Cho pointed to the state’s reliance on the 2-1-1 call system as one of the reasons why it took so long for the money to be spent down. Cho wants the state to supplement 2-1-1 by formalizing relationships with community leaders as a way to reach out.
“Instead of actually just expecting that people in need would be able to call for help -- call the state’s 2-1-1 system or us -- we really needed to figure out how to reach out to the community leaders who were working closely, so we’re grateful for your support and your work,” Cho said. “[It’s] just a lesson for us in how we need to work better to reach out to those communities.”
The United Way of Connecticut said that from the time the hurricane made landfall to December of 2018, the 2-1-1 system fielded nearly 5,860 calls related to Hurricane Maria assistance.
Evacuees have expressed frustration with having to go through 2-1-1 while experiencing the trauma that comes with being displaced.
Many of the evacuees also say they’re still struggling with everyday life, even two years later.
Rita Rivera now has a job as a presorter at Pitney Bowes. It’s how she supports her family. She said there’s no one else to help her, other than the Puerto Rican community.
“I have two daughters. One of my daughters has a disability,” Rivera said. Now, I live in an apartment in the third floor. I’m looking for [an] apartment in the first floor because my daughter can’t move her legs.”
She said she’s remained in Connecticut because her daughter can seek better medical attention here than in Puerto Rico. She expressed gratitude for everything she’s gotten during her time here, but she was at the event to speak up for the families that need more support.
Ashlyn Gonzalez Cabrera said through translator Fernando Betancourt that without the housing dollars from the state, her family would’ve never been able to recover. But she did want everyone in attendance at the institute in Hartford to know that Hurricane Maria evacuees are still in need.
Gonzalez Cabrera now lives in Portland. She volunteers with Lilly Sin Barreras, which is a nonprofit devoted to getting people in need of resources the right help. Lilly Sin Barreras is a run by Lilly Velez-Herrera. She’s spent a large chunk of the last two years in service to Puerto Rican families that evacuated to the greater Hartford area, starting with the act of preparing meals for them on a daily basis.
In a poignant moment during the event on Tuesday, Velez-Herrera asked various Hartford leaders, including Mayor Luke Bronin, to stand alongside her while she delivered a message of togetherness for the media to report to the people.
“If you want it done, you have to call us to the table – ‘us’ not ‘they’ [or] ’those’ – and we will get it done,” Velez-Herrera said. “Stop listening to that stuff that people tell you ‘no it has to be this group or that group’ and putting everybody to fight against each other. Look at the future: you can either help the future or give them excuses of why we cannot do it.”
State Representative Brandon McGee – a member of the Black and Puerto Rican caucus – said at the event that his group will now ask for more state funding for evacuees.