New York City

Puerto Rican evacuees are still in New York, still struggling

Will the Empire State forget about those who fled after Hurricane Maria?

A man holds the Puerto Rican flag outside of New York City's City Hall.

A man holds the Puerto Rican flag outside of New York City's City Hall. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

On Sept. 20, 2017, Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, flooding neighborhoods, tearing roofs off of homes, decimating the island’s utilities and killing an estimated 4,600 Puerto Ricans.

It’s estimated that 130,000 Puerto Ricans fled the island after the storm – about 4% of the island’s population at the time. Many chose to relocate on the United States mainland. More Puerto Rican evacuees ended up in Florida and New York than any other states, presumably due to their large and established Puerto Rican populations.

While many Puerto Ricans eventually returned to the island, despite its ongoing political and financial struggles, a considerable number of Puerto Ricans decided to remain in New York. And many of them are still struggling to secure affordable housing, jobs and government resources.

Organizations like New York Disaster Interfaith Services and Catholic Charities Community Services received case management funding from the state to assist Puerto Rican evacuees in 2018, but come February it’s likely that at least one of the organizations that received state funds will run out of that money. As the end of the year nears, the fate of the city’s Puerto Rican evacuees is becoming increasingly uncertain.

Well before the hurricane hit, Puerto Rico had been struggling. “The hurricane did not take place in a vacuum,” Carlos Vargas-Ramos, the Center for Puerto Rican Studies’ director for public policy, external and media relations, and development at Hunter College, told City & State. “Puerto Rico has been in an economic recession – I would call it a depression, actually – since 2006, two years before the great recession began in the United States and worldwide. And they’re still in a recessionary period.”

In 2006, the commonwealth wasn’t making enough money to pay off its accumulated debts or maintain government operations. So the island’s political leaders decided to borrow more money to pay off its debt, resulting in further degradation of its economy. In 2015, Puerto Rican Gov. Alejandro García Padilla declared the commonwealth’s debt “unpayable.”

In June 2016, President Barack Obama signed the PROMESA Act, which was intended to restructure the island’s debt that had grown to $72 billion at the time. PROMESA created a fiscal control board, charged with balancing the island’s budget and overseeing the commonwealth’s regulations, financial plans and laws. Unfortunately, PROMESA ended up further eroding Puerto Rico’s economic stability. “Congress put a fiscal oversight board that essentially destroyed what was left of the economy,” Charles Venator-Santiago, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut, told City & State. “There were no jobs. Block funding was (and continues to be) limited for social programs. So people were leaving (Puerto Rico in 2017) not necessarily because of the hurricane, although that exacerbated it.”

Venator-Santiago also explained that Puerto Ricans had begun migrating to the mainland in large numbers before Maria, around 2007 and 2008, due to a lack of jobs on the island. Hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have since fled the island. “This is going to keep happening,” Venator-Santiago said. “What we saw with Maria exacerbated what we saw before with the economic crisis. Unless Congress makes an intervention in Puerto Rico, you’re going to see a lot more people displaced and pushed out of the island.”

Maria only pushed the island further into debt, causing losses estimated at or beyond $100 billion.

The streets of San Juan, flooded weeks after Hurricane María.
Alessandro Pietri/Shutterstock

Within a week or two after Maria, Puerto Rican evacuees began to arrive in New York City. By October 2017, hundreds of evacuees were arriving nearly every day, Peter B. Gudaitis, executive director of New York Disaster Interfaith Services, told City & State. And it became clear that helping those evacuees obtain housing, food security, employment and medical care were all of the utmost importance.

The evacuees were directed to the Julia de Burgos cultural center in East Harlem, where disaster relief organizations and government agencies offered to help them, from October 2017 to January 2018. Puerto Rican evacuees also found themselves in other parts of the state, like Buffalo and Rochester, but most funneled into the state through the city.

Former New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito – who is currently running for Congress in the 15th District in the Bronx – was still in office when evacuees started to filter into the city, and told City & State that she advocated strongly for the city to establish an intake system for the displaced Puerto Ricans. She also played a hand in establishing the Julia de Burgos center as a “centralized place where all the different city agencies were represented,” and could connect evacuees to an array of services. “Unfortunately, (the centralized location of disaster relocation services) wasn’t kept up,” Mark-Viverito said. “Once I left office, where my voice was a very strong one, a lot of things that had been established started to fall through the cracks.”

Many of the Puerto Ricans who made their way to the mainland had already been struggling financially when they left the island, Venator-Santiago said. “The people who suffered the most damage (during Maria) were the people who lived in the most precarious housing or neighborhood situations,” Venator-Santiago explained. “Their socioeconomic status made them vulnerable to begin with. And prior to the storm, we (academics familiar with Puerto Rico’s socioeconomic landscape) knew that they were going to have hardships – and that was the case.”

Venator-Santiago added that oftentimes Puerto Ricans who relocate to the mainland end up having many of the same struggles and needs as Puerto Ricans who have been here for 20 years. “A lot of Puerto Ricans that come from the island end up living in poverty or living in conditions that are close to poverty with other structural limitations that impose (poverty),” Venator-Santiago said. “A lack of transportation, a lack of access to food and so on.”

“Once I left office, where my voice was a very strong one, a lot of things that had been established started to fall through the cracks.” – former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito

Numerous evacuees relied heavily on family and friends already living on the mainland, who were of a similarly difficult socioeconomic status, which resulted in further hardships for the people taking care of them. “You have people in the United States helping, willing to help, opening their doors to people displaced from this storm, having to take care of folks coming from the island with great need; great material need, great emotional need, with limited resources themselves,” said Vargas-Ramos.

New York Disaster Interfaith Services processed and began tracking about 2,200 families through the Julia de Burgos center and distributed roughly 1.3 million items of new clothing to them. The organization also began offering case management services – pairing caseworkers with evacuees to help them gain access to federal and city benefits – after Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and Gov. Andrew Cuomo allocated $2 million to support displaced hurricane survivors in July 2018. Though, according to Gudaitis, it’s likely that the funding provided by the state to New York Disaster Interfaith Services will run out in February, even though the organization’s contract with the state extends well into 2020. “The reality is, these clients probably need another 12 to 18 months of help, which includes cash assistance,” Gudaitis said. “Case management alone is not helpful because (evacuees) have no money and they have no savings. Even when they can secure an apartment, they still have (English language) needs and they still need to find meaningful employment.”

So far, New York Disaster Interfaith Services has given approximately $1 million to its Puerto Rican clients in the city, but fundraising is becoming increasingly more difficult as Maria drifts further out of the collective consciousness. Disaster case management is typically funded by the federal government, but no federal assistance was made available to the state following Maria, forcing New York to help evacuees out of its own pocket. A spokesperson for the Federal Emergency Management Agency was unable to verify this. The agency did, however, fund a disaster case management program in Puerto Rico.  “It’s almost unprecedented that a state will fund disaster case management when the federal government won’t,” Gudaitis said.

FEMA has done the bare minimum in terms of financially assisting the island’s rehabilitation and recovery. It’s no secret that funding for the island and its residents has largely been stifled by the Trump administration, which has resisted providing Puerto Rico with the full amount of disaster aid required to heal its wounds. As recently as Oct. 24, officials from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development acknowledged that the agency withheld funds allocated to the island.

But states funding relocation services for disaster evacuees is becoming the norm throughout the country. As Vargas-Ramos points out, following Hurricane Harvey, which displaced 30,000 people in Texas and Louisiana, it was the state of Texas that bore the responsibility of assisting residents from both states, as opposed to the federal government. “Why is it that the state is fully responsible for providing assistance (to disaster evacuees), when that should be the competence of the federal government?” Vargas-Ramos asked.

Monsignor Kevin Sullivan, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of New York, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, Jr, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announce $2 million to support more than 11,000 displaced Hurrica
The Office of Andrew M. Cuomo

Now, more than two years after Maria, Puerto Rican evacuees are still struggling with many of the same issues: finding secure housing and well-paying jobs and overcoming the English language barrier. “People have (a) dire need for income,” Vargas-Ramos said of the current state of Puerto Rican evacuees.

Nearly all of the evacuees who came to the city received CityFHEPS housing vouchers, which are intended to help low-income city residents secure affordable housing. Despite having the vouchers – which most needed to renew multiple times – evacuees faced difficulties securing housing, due to landlords being unwilling to take the vouchers or attempting to make illegal cash deals in exchange for taking the vouchers, according to Gudaitis. Now, many Puerto Ricans are stuck living in homeless shelters. “(Evacuees) are (still) saying that they’re having difficulty accessing housing,” Mark-Viverito said. “Some of them are still in shelters. Some of them have vouchers and they’re not being taken by landlords.”

Roughly 200 of the families currently enrolled in New York Disaster Interfaith Services’ management program have been stuck in the city’s shelter system for the past two years. “They’re not getting appropriate help from the city homeless services system, because the city’s homeless services system also helped them get housing vouchers but then doesn’t help them find an apartment,” Gudaitis said.

Gudaitis also mentioned that after over two years of frustration, most Puerto Rican evacuees have grown weary of case management and have simply stopped responding to many of New York Disaster Interfaith Services’ attempts to reach out to them. About 1,000 of the 2,200 families that the organization had been tracking since 2017 practically disappeared. Gudaitis suspects that some of the unresponsive evacuees returned to Puerto Rico, while some remained in the city, but there’s really no way of knowing. About 800 families that New York Disaster Interfaith Services has been tracking haven’t indicated they need help – or, more likely, don’t trust the help being offered, Gudaitis said.

“Part of the problem is (evacuees) experienced government indifference or ineptitude,” Gudaitis said. “A lot of these people have applied for FEMA help and didn’t get any, or the paperwork that they had to produce was just impossible for them. I think they’ve gotten phone calls from a lot of different organizations and they don’t necessarily know who to trust. Some of the clients are angry and they are very hostile when you call.” Mark-Viverito echoed Gudaitis’ point, explaining that the inconsistency of services and benefits offered to the evacuees became so frustrating for some families that they returned to the island, despite the lack of resources there, due to its familiarity.

The circumstances facing many of the evacuees in the city have also taken a tremendous toll on their mental health, according to Gudaitis. “We see a lot of the evacuees are still struggling with mental health issues, particularly children (who are traumatized by the storm and its aftermath), and we’ve had clients report suicidal ideations,” he said.

As February nears, Gudaitis is concerned about the clients New York Disaster Interfaith Services has worked with, who will no longer have access to case management. “Our biggest concern, of course, is (in February) we’re not going to be able to secure more money from the state,” Gudaitis said. “And these clients will just have to get referred to traditional social service providers who don’t understand what they’ve been through. They don’t understand that they’re traumatized, and they’ll get even less effective help.”

It’s unlikely New York City will stop seeing an influx of disaster evacuees from Puerto Rico – and all over the world, for that matter – as time goes by and the climate crisis continues to worsen. This is one of the reasons why Gudaitis finds it odd that the city has yet to put provisions in place for current and incoming climate disaster evacuees, explaining that services provided at the Julia de Burgos center were provided “out of the poor operating budget of the agencies that were placed there.”

Mark-Viverito also voiced her frustrations with the city’s lack of advocacy for evacuees who continue to struggle in the city. “Where’s the advocacy from the mayor’s office?” she asked. “Where’s the advocacy from the council, even? Nobody is advocating for the families. And, you know, these organizations (like New York Disaster Interfaith Services) are trying to help. They’re very, very limited and strained. I think there has to be some sort of emergency convening, so these organizations have access to representatives to make the case (for more funding). And that there may be some figuring out of what kind of system and the network can be set up at its exclusive right.”

Since working at New York Disaster Interfaith Services, Gudaitis has assisted disaster survivors who have relocated to the city after four separate disasters: Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 and Hurricanes Maria and Irma in 2017. Based on his past and present experiences working with evacuees, Gudaitis feels that this city is no more prepared than it was in 2005, when 1,600 families relocated here after Katrina. Mark-Viverito said the city and state should work together to address the needs of the evacuees now and create an “intake service that works for them.”

“Getting climate change refugees resettled in a local community is critical to their resilience and it’s also less of a drain on our public services,” Gudaitis said, explaining why the city should invest in the resettlement of Puerto Ricans. “So, I do think it’s an important investment in the future of the Puerto Rican evacuees that have come here, to try to get them resettled and self-sufficient with professional disaster case management services.”