By Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Center for Investigative Journalism
English Version by Julio Ricardo Varela | Latino USA
On the morning of December 8, Nellyan Velázquez and her three-year-old daughter left Puerto Rico for New York, unaware of what their fate would be. After a long wait at the Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) building in the Bronx that lasted past midnight, a school bus arrived and took them to Brooklyn.
Once in Brooklyn, they spent the night in a building without an elevator. Their room was “super disgusting.” The mattresses had no sheets. Nellyan did not even remember the address. They arrived at 2am, asleep. By 6am, with the temperature at 40 degrees, they were outside of the building again with their suitcases—waiting for the bus to return to the Bronx office to see if they would get a temporary shelter.
That day, PATH, a program of New York City’s Department of Homeless Services, put them in a Coney Island apartment where they spent the second night in another room that Nellyan described as “horrible.”
“I’ll tell you this: cockroaches would crawl into the drain, through the pipes of the sink, in the kitchen, behind the refrigerator. Cockroaches were everywhere. One night, I’m turning over in my bed to see my daughter sleeping in the shelter and right then a cockroach crawls across her pillow…. You have to be in the shelters by nine. You have to sign in to enter and exit. They really aren’t places you can live in… The other day when I spent my overnight, I saw three Puerto Rican families arriving,” Nellyan said.
Families from Puerto Rico who lost their homes to Hurricane María are showing up at homeless programs in New York mainly through third-party referrals, but without information about the Federal Agency for Emergency Management (FEMA) Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program, which offers temporary stays in hotel rooms.
“[PATH] is putting them in cluster buildings. They’re putting them in shelters, which you know, I appreciate that they are offering them, but … I was the one who took her out of that shelter,” said Sonia Velázquez, a Puerto Rican community leader from New York who familiarized Nellyan with the FEMA program and then took her to a Brooklyn hotel that was working with the federal agency.
That hotel was providing rooms for several Puerto Rican families displaced by the hurricane: a man living alone; a 50-year-old woman and her sick mother; a woman living alone; a 43-year-old woman with her husband and three daughters. All their homes in Puerto Rico remain unlivable with no power. The children have missed school. The adults have lost their jobs. The sick lack medical services.
Meanwhile, both the Puerto Rican and federal governments continue to struggle in the recuperation process. Three months after the hurricane, almost half of the island’s population still does not have power. FEMA has not distributed emergency funds, while Puerto Rico’s unemployment rate is around 10.8% and people leaving the island could fluctuate between 100,000 to 200,000 people per year.
According to Nellyan, who has been in the Brooklyn hotel since December 12, there are between 28 and 30 families living there. Velázquez would not give an exact number of people who live there or are arriving daily at the hotel, citing “security reasons.”
The number of people living in Puerto Rico’s government shelters reached a peak of 15,000 right after the hurricane, but that number has been decreasing since October. Meanwhile, starting on October 30, the number of people seeking help through FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program in U.S. hotels has increased.
As of January 9, there are 11,533 people from Puerto Rico in the FEMA program, according to data provided by the agency. The vast majority of these people are living on the East Coast.
The Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI) identified a significant increase of 3,180 people in the FEMA program between December 14 and January 9. In addition, the current number of people in this program is greater than the number of people who received shelter from the Puerto Rican government two days before the hurricane. That number was 11,105, according to the island’s Department of Housing.
Florida is the state with the largest number of families in FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program at 1,755. Massachusetts is next with 578. In New York, there are 208 families, and Pennsylvania has 176 families. As of January, there are 922 families in hotels on the island. The program allows people to stay for five to 14 days. After that, participants must request an extension. According to FEMA, 1,192 families have already completed the program. In addition, there are 19 families whose relocation status is unknown. FEMA contractor Corporate Lodging Consultants, a provider of hotel service in the United States, tracks the status of the program.
As of this publication of this story, 78% of the families in the FEMA program have yet to resolve their permanent housing needs. In addition, 280 people are still in Puerto Rico’s government shelters.
Outside of the numbers, FEMA chose not to give profile information about the people in the program. The CPI asked the agency for data about age, gender and family unit categories. FEMA press officer Joann Díaz said that this information is confidential, noting that a “report must be created.” Díaz also indicated that she does not know when the agency could provide the data requested by the CPI.
A Journey With No Return
Nellyan lived in the town of Aguas Buenas, Puerto Rico. She sought shelter from Hurricane Maria at the home of her maternal grandmother, and had to wait until some streets were passable to head back to her house. When Nellyan went back home, “it was horrible,” she said. Mud, leaves and water were everywhere. She had to toss out everything that got wet.
She is 25 years old, with a bachelor’s degree in criminology and a special concentration in advertising and marketing. Before the hurricane, Nellyan worked in two stores at the Las Catalinas Mall in Caguas—one that sold shoes and another that sold eyeglasses.
“The mall is already open, but for me it’s not feasible to work three or four hours to maintain a generator and buy food, which gets damaged every day. And my daughter is allergic to many things too, and the medications for that. For me, it is not feasible to stay in a country that’s really going backwards instead of moving forward,” said Nellyan, who wore a padded, thick jacket to protect herself from the cold.
In Puerto Rico, some friends told her about Prevention Assistance and Temporary Housing (PATH) in New York. She searched the internet for information, found an address and saw a photo of the building. Nellyan called, but no answered. Without any further information and with airfare her mother bought, Nellyan and her daughter took their trip in early December.
Like many others on the island, which had been facing a decade-long fiscal crisis, Nellyan had already thought about moving to the United States before the hurricane. But she always resisted.
“Because I had my work and although it wasn’t a big salary, I was a team leader in one job and a regular employee at the other one. It wasn’t much, but I could, for example, pay my rent, my bus and manage with my daughter. Yes, I could do it. But when the hurricane passed, obviously everything went backwards. So I thought about it and since I’ve always wanted to go to the United States, this would be a great opportunity to start from scratch. And although life is more expensive here, there are more job opportunities. I want to establish myself. I don’t want to return to Puerto Rico,” Nellyan said as her daughter walked around her.
Nellyan was sitting in a large room on the first floor of the hotel that for the time being has become her home. Unlike the PATH shelters, she said, there are no strict rules here.
“In my case, since I have a baby, I have two beds, a bathroom, a kitchen. I have a table. I have a television. In the shelters, there are no televisions. I have a pillow, blanket… You can go in and out whenever you want. We go to other rooms of people we made friends with. We cook and have a good time. The people that have food stamps, since there’s a kitchen here, they provide us with pots and utensils and plates, and we can cook here, and we eat here. I had [food stamps] in Puerto Rico. I closed that case so I could open it here when I arrived. The process was super fast,” Nellyan said.
For now, life in New York outside of the hotel is filled with paperwork. Nellyan’s daughter is in state care. And Nellyan attends Nutritional Assistance Program appointments and medical appointments. She plans to take courses to perfect her English. Nellyan still does not know how long she can stay at the hotel, but she is already applying to FEMA’s temporary housing program.
The Moyet Family
Fernando Moyet, a resident of Bayamón, Puerto Rico, decided to leave for the United States after his wife had two operations canceled due to Hurricane María. They spent almost a month in a hotel assigned to them by PATH in Brooklyn, until Sonia Velázquez informed them about the FEMA program, and they moved to the hotel where other people from Puerto Rico live.
“First, I found out that to go to a shelter, we had to go to an office called PATH. You get there with your family. First, we were alone because the girls were in school, and all the family members have to be there. We went the next day. We arrived at nine in the morning. Do you know what time they took us from that site? At eleven o’clock at night, to do an overnight as they call it—one night in which they get us the hotel for us or in the shelter for us, because they are little hotels that they have turned into shelters,” Moyet said.
“They took us [from the PATH office] on a school bus filled with people. There were Puerto Ricans but also from here, African-Americans and Mexicans. And they told us that then they would put us in a better place. That overnight I remember was the most horrible thing in the world. My wife has mobility issues. To climb five floors? She can’t do it. How did they not give her a first floor? That was a rat cage full of cockroaches, full of cement. I had no bedsheets,” Moyet added
“We started getting sick. The meals are horrible, all microwave. You felt like you were in confinement because you have to arrive before nine o’clock at night. If you don’t, you stay outside. For every movement you make, you have to sign in and out. And I said ‘come on, I’m not on probation.’ That’s what it looked like. But that’s their system. With three girls and me and my wife, the five of us got sick, and I said ‘no, I have to do something.’ I kept looking for information,” said Moyet, who has already found work as a chef in Manhattan. In Puerto Rico, he worked as a civil employee at the U.S. Army Buchanan base in Guaynabo.
“We Lost Belief in the Government”
“We didn’t simply lose the facilities and good things in life, because people see that Puerto Ricans always live with good things. We didn’t lose that. We lost the family. We lost our dream. We lost the future of our children. We lost belief in the government, trust in everything,” said a 43-year-old Puerto Rican woman at the hotel, who chose to protect her identity.
She was sitting at a table in the hotel lobby, waiting for more Puerto Ricans to arrive so she could help them. Next to her were two other women who were also in the FEMA program and assisting newcomers.
“You arrive without any direction, with no one to guide you… I don’t know any English but nothing has held me back. I have followed all the ways and means to have people understand me, and if not, I don’t move. I need someone in Spanish and if they do not look for that, I’ll find it somewhere else. And then leave my family, my mom who I have in a home in Bayamón, but I have to settle myself so I can bring her here. And I even had to leave my dogs, three puppies who are my life,” the 43-year-old woman said, holding back tears.
“My house was filled with sewage. I slept in a garage. How do I explain that to my daughters? We have to sleep with the sounds of gunfire from nine o’clock at night on. My daughters slept with my hands holding their hands, because at nine o’clock at night that place [Puerto Rico] was a no man’s land… I never thought to leave at all, because that is my island,” she recalled.
Another woman who was at the Brooklyn hotel for a month-and-a-half did not go through the PATH shelters, but first stayed at a relative’s house, which had also become like its own shelter.
“I came to a relative and stayed there for a few days, and obviously other people who were there had also come. We had almost twelve people in a very small place, in a very small space, and from there we decided to find another place. Right now there is someone here with two kids who doesn’t know where to live or where to stay, and all she does is walk around here. I hope that the little information we have gotten her can help her a bit,” said a 50-year-old Santurce woman, who preferred to not reveal her identity.
“I totally ignored all this. I didn’t know there was help. I didn’t know we could be staying in one place. I didn’t plan to leave Puerto Rico, but then my mother’s condition, so I come here, and that’s why I decided to stay, because in the house where I lived there, everything was damaged, flooded, and we were without power, sleeping on the floor, sleeping practically with everything open. I saw that there were better conditions here, and that’s why I decided to stay,” she said.
Other Places in the FEMA Program
The CPI visited two other New York hotels listed in the FEMA program. One was a two-story cement and wooden structure on Glenwood Road in Brooklyn. The FEMA list identified the place as a bed and breakfast, but upon arrival, a sign said it was a day-care center called Del’s.
It was 1pm. There were barely any cars moving on the street, and one or two people were occasionally walking down the sidewalk. The small building’s gate was open, but no one answered the doorbell. When the CPI called and asked if they accepted people from the FEMA program, one employee said yes, but did not know if people from Puerto Rico were staying there.
Another place in Brooklyn was called the Park House Hotel, located in Borough Park. The hotel confirmed that there was a Puerto Rican woman in the FEMA program, but the CPI did not have access to speak with her.
FEMA evaluates each family that participates in the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program every 30 days, since they must demonstrate that repairs are being made to their home, said Delyris Aquino, a FEMA press officer in Puerto Rico. In the case of non-owners, they must submit information from a landlord and demonstrate progress in getting a secure home with the financial or direct assistance granted by FEMA.
The Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program must last three months from the moment it was activated, which in the case of Hurricane María was October 31, 2017. But the Puerto Rican requested an extension that was approved, so the prog”This date will be re-evaluated in 31 days to verify if it is eligible for an extension,” said Díaz, the FEMA press officer. The CPI asked if there was a guide or document with all the requirements for this program, but Díaz said that the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program does not have it.
“The system does it and it is internal,” she added.
The CPI asked New York City’s Department of Homeless Services for information about how many families from Puerto Rico it has served since September 20. The CPI also told the department about the complaints about the shelters’ conditions and was asked why people who arrive at the PATH office due to the hurricane do not receive information about FEMA services.
Isaac McGinn, the department’s press secretary, replied with the following e-mail message:
“Our goal is to help evacuees sign up and receive FEMA services immediately after seeking help, and connect with friends and family to get a place to stay.”
Read the Spanish version here.
This story was made possible by the Futuro Media Group as part of a collaboration supported by the Ford Foundation.