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Editorial: Hurricane evacuees find support

  • Gesmarie Perez Santiago help her son Esteban Gonzalez Perez, 11, set up his video games as the two unpack their belongings in their new home at Hampshire Heights earlier this month.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


Monday, April 16, 2018

Spending five days in a hotel room can get old pretty fast. Try five months. That’s how long more than two dozen families from Puerto Rico have spent living at the Quality Inn and Suites on Conz Street in Northampton after two hurricanes — Irma and Maria — destroyed their homes last year.

The hurricane evacuees arrived quietly in Northampton last fall and were put up in the hotel with “transitional sheltering assistance” from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which was twice extended as these families tried to find work, schooling for their children and more permanent homes. As of this month, nearly all of these families have found new homes in the region as they continue to adjust to life in western Massachusetts.

Their story is a one of patience, perseverance and resilience, but it is also a story about the strength of the area’s social safety net and the significant role it has played in assisting and bringing a sense of hope to these displaced families. The results can be seen in the story of Gesmarie Perez Santiago, 37, and her two sons, Esteban, 11, now attending Bridge Street School in Northampton, and Jesus, 19, who is taking a full load of classes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

After five months in the hotel and then a temporary apartment, the family moved into a new apartment at Hampshire Heights this month. It was a happy moment amid a tumultuous year. Like many other families, Santiago received assistance from the supportive and unsung hotel staff, which helped them navigate the bureaucracy, the Northampton school system and Amherst-based Bridge Family Resource Center, which is part of the state’s network of family centers that provided the lead case managers for the families.

“The transition hasn’t been easy, but they’ve made it so much easier. We’re so fortunate,” Santiago told Gazette reporter Dusty Christensen this month.

Local officials and organizations had virtually no time to plan for this wave of families and their needs when they arrived here last fall. Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz said the city first learned about the families after one of them made inquiries about attending school. In addition, Quality Inn management said they had no idea their hotel would become temporary housing for those fleeing the hurricanes’ wreckage.

Since that time, 24 students have entered the Northampton school system and while that has put an added strain on resources and presented financial challenges, the School Department has shown its mettle. Superintendent John Provost said the school community feels fortunate to have the Puerto Rican students.

“We feel that this has been an opportunity for us to really live out our core educational values and really demonstrate how welcoming we are as a public school learning community,” Provost told the Gazette. “We are truly public schools … all you need to do is arrive in the city and we will educate you.”

The charitable work of others in the community must also be recognized in helping these families get back on their feet, from local church groups and nonprofit organizations to dozens of volunteers who have provided food, clothing, shelter and moral support along the way.

While most of the displaced Puerto Rican families in Northampton are moving on with their lives, others who arrived in the region have not been so fortunate.

In nearby Holyoke, for example, many Puerto Rican families are still struggling and remain hotel-bound with federal transitional housing assistance set to run out. And housing is not the only matter that must be addressed, as many refugees have medical, financial and mental health needs because of the trauma resulting from the hurricanes.

We commend so many in the Valley who responded generously to help the hurricane victims adjust to their new lives here. We hope that support continues for those families still in need.