End of temporary FEMA housing for Puerto Rican evacuees won’t be catastrophic in Philly

 Almost a year later, many Hurricane Maria evacuees are more established in Philadelphia communities such as Norris Square. (Catalina Jaramillo/PlanPhilly)

Almost a year later, many Hurricane Maria evacuees are more established in Philadelphia communities such as Norris Square. (Catalina Jaramillo/PlanPhilly)

When Charlie Pérez and wife Daisy Rivera Pérez arrived in Philadelphia with their three teenage daughters last December, leaving behind their two sons and everything they knew, they felt completely disoriented. Hurricane Maria had just destroyed most of what they had in their hometown in Puerto Rico, and they had nothing here.

“I didn’t even know where Pennsylvania was, to be honest,” Charlie Pérez said in Spanish. “We jumped with our eyes closed.”

The first four months were hard. They stayed in a one-room hotel in Center City paid for by FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, and found jobs cleaning shoes and cleaning in a thrift store while their daughters went to school. But then, with the help of a coalition of organizations created to help Puerto Rican evacuees, the Pérezes found resources, friends, better jobs, and, finally, a three-bedroom house to live in near Lancaster Avenue, in West Philadelphia.

“Nonprofit organizations here helped us enormously — they gave us clothes, they guided us, and they helped us to move forward,” said Perez, a retired Puerto Rican policeman now working as a social worker for Asociación Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM).  “Little by little, we feel more adapted, and at home.”

The Perez family is one of about 184 in Pennsylvania that benefited from FEMA’s short-term housing assistance, a program that started last Oct. 31 and has been extended four times — the last deadline was Friday, Aug. 31. But on Thursday in Massachusetts, U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman extended the program for two more weeks, setting a definitive checkout end date of Sept. 14.

“It’s not going to be a dire situation for us that the program is ending, we have been anticipating this for months,” said Julia Menzo, who leads the Greater Philadelphia Long-Term Recovery Committee.

According to FEMA spokesman Juan A. Rosado-Reynes, as of Friday there were still 1,032 families living in hotels under the TSA’s hotel-voucher program in 27 states and Puerto Rico. In Pennsylvania, only 21 families are still in hotels. Menzo said they know of three in Philadelphia.

The long-term recovery group has been able to secure funding and housing from the Pennsylvania Department of Community and Economic Development and the Philadelphia Housing Authority. According to Menzo, PHA has provided housing for 25 families so far. Latino and faith organizations have provided assistance for other families, giving them resources to pay for first and last months’ rent and security deposits, furniture and more. The recovery group is processing 35 more cases.

“Housing stability is still a major issue,” Menzo said. “But as far as the TSA program ending —  that’s not going to be catastrophic for Philadelphia.”

Pennsylvania is in better shape than other states that received similar or even smaller numbers of evacuees. In New York, 42 families are still in hotels; there are 38 in Connecticut, 135 in Massachusetts, and 322 in Florida. Menzo said that’s a result of the work done by the Long-Term Recovery Committee, which has been working with TSA families since February.

“Outreach really made a difference,” Menzo said.

Carlos Torres, a single Puerto Rican father, spent six months in a hotel with his 16-year-old son, Carlos Jr. He suffered with every TSA deadline, thinking he would have to live in the streets. Finally, by the end of June, APM helped him pay the first three months of rent for an apartment in North Philadelphia.

“We are much less stressed now,” Torres said in Spanish. “We’re still starting, but God will help us.”

Torres works part time as a security guard at the Lillian Marrero branch of Philadelphia’s Free Library, and he’s applying for a cleaning job in the same Center City hotel he stayed in during his first months in Philly. His son studies at Congreso and hopes to become a nurse.

“I’m more than grateful for these opportunities, and I feel happy,” Torres said. “Philadelphia is my second home now — Puerto Rico is always going to be my home, but here I have a roof to live under. In Puerto Rico, I don’t.”

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