Coalition looks to help new arrivals from Puerto Rico

  • More than 30 people gathered at the organization Enlace de Familias on Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020, to prepare for the arrival of evacuees from Puerto Rico following weeks of earthquakes there. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 1/23/2020 11:35:49 PM

HOLYOKE — Many of the more than 30 people gathered at the organization Enlace de Familias on Thursday morning already knew each other well. They shook hands and chatted warmly before Betty Medina Lichtenstein called the meeting to order.

“During Hurricane Maria, we worked very well together,” said Medina, Enlace’s executive director. “We created an access and support model that others around not only the state but around the nation learned from, including FEMA.”

That same network is now preparing to implement its model, as well as the many lessons it learned from Hurricane Maria, as parts of Puerto Rico continue to shake from persistent earthquakes.

Thousands in Puerto Rico continue to sleep outside after weeks of earthquakes have destroyed buildings, crippled infrastructure and left residents in fear. And as families begin to leave the island, some are coming to stay with loved ones in Holyoke — a city where close to half of all residents are Puerto Rican.

It’s unclear exactly how many have already arrived here from the U.S. territory. Officials from the Department of Transitional Assistance said that 36 people from the island have applied for assistance in Holyoke and another 54 in Springfield. The city’s state-appointed schools chief, Stephen Zrike, said 11 students have enrolled in the district so far.

State of emergency

Puerto Rico Gov. Wanda Vázquez Garced declared a state of emergency early this month, and the White House released $5 million in financial aid. But the Federal Emergency Management Agency has yet to release a source of funding that proved crucial when evacuees arrived after Hurricane Maria: Transitional Sheltering Assistance, or TSA.

That money covers the need for immediate shelter — in hotels, for example — when evacuees arrive. And as new families arrive after the earthquakes, shelter is their first need.

“I think that’s going to be our biggest issue right at this moment” said Kathryn Buckley-Brawner, executive director of Catholic Charities of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Springfield. “You have families arriving and they’re spending out of pocket, if they have a pocket.”

Buckley-Brawner said that Catholic Charities primarily works to provide housing after shelter, and that the organization does not have the funds to help people pay for shelter. But she said Catholic Charities also doesn’t want to see people turned out into the streets.

“What we have been doing is kind of makeshift right now, which is why I really welcome this meeting,” she said.

Those at the meeting, including Holyoke school officials and representatives from the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, River Valley Counseling Center, other community organizations and state agencies, decided to direct anyone wanting to give money to local organizations to give it to Catholic Charities and to specify that the donation is for evacuees from Puerto Rico.

In the meantime, the Department of Transitional Assistance has expedited emergency Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits. And other organizations detailed how they could provide assistance — for example, weekend food backpacks from the schools and counseling for traumatized evacuees.

Housing barriers

Ana Jaramillo, a representative from Holyoke Health Center, said the center is working on being able to share medical records via cloud computing with community health centers in Puerto Rico.

But the conversation continued to center around shelter and housing, which proved the most difficult challenge during Hurricane Maria.

“It took at least 30 to 60 days to house many of the families that came here because it’s one thing for us to say you’ve got the funding, it’s another thing entirely to find affordable housing that they can actually move into,” Buckley-Brawner said. “There were so many barriers to them actually acquiring housing.”

One of the major lessons learned during Hurricane Maria, Medina said after the meeting, was that housing proved incredibly difficult to find for people. Medina said that the region’s housing stock is already depleted, with many people already experiencing homelessness.

“To come here with the experience that someone is going to be able to find decent, affordable housing, that’s a dream,” she said. “That’s not the reality.”

Many hurricane evacuees ultimately ended up returning to the island, Medina said. And some who found housing, received financial assistance and help furnishing their apartments still ended up evicted because they couldn’t pay the high rents in the region.

Medina said that after the meeting she asked U.S. Sen. Ed Markey’s office for guidance from FEMA about whether TSA funding would be made available. Until then, she said, local organizations are left to fill the gaps.

“We don’t have any place to put these families and none of us have the funds to create subcontracts with these hotels,” she said.

FEMA’s press office in Puerto Rico did not immediately respond to questions from the Gazette about whether TSA will be made available and if Massachusetts will be one of the host states to provide transitional sheltering.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061


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