Even if Delia Cruz and her three daughters had a way to get to the store, there was little food available at the island supermarkets after Hurricane Maria slammed through the Caribbean last September.
“I got tired of them saying, ‘Mommy, I’m hungry. Mommy, I want more food. Mommy, I want cold water to drink,’” Cruz said of her girls, who are now 5, 6, and 8.
Their school had shut down, too, and the alternative was a wreck, so Cruz asked her grandmother for money for airplane tickets so her family could leave Puerto Rico.
What followed was a difficult and convoluted journey from San Juan to New York to New Jersey and finally to a Center City hotel where she and the girls have been living in a Federal Emergency Management Agency-paid suite since January.
But Cruz, 27, and her daughters, as well as about 2,300 other families who have been housed in more than 30 states and Puerto Rico under FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, must leave those hotels by Saturday, after two earlier deadlines for families to find more permanent housing were extended.
For the 27 families in Philadelphia and 13 in Bucks, Chester, Delaware and Montgomery Counties still in transitional housing, a three-month-old FEMA-recognized collaborative called Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee is helping hurricane evacuees find housing and jobs in the region. FEMA announced that since October, it has provided hotel rooms for more than 7,000 families.
For those families under FEMA’s care, it seems the latest deadline will be met. But others have moved out of the area, said Julia Menzo, director of community outreach for the Liberty Lutheran/Lutheran Congregational Services, an Ambler-based social service agency.
There was one family who moved to North Carolina to be near relatives and a few others who have returned to Puerto Rico. But Menzo knows of approximately 60 other families who never qualified for the transitional housing funding and are living with relatives and friends in basements or couches.
Yet the numbers could be even higher, said Charito Morales, a community activist who works at the Providence Center in North Philadelphia and is also affiliated with the Pirate Surf Club, a grassroots organization in Puerto Rico that has worked to assist hurricane victims.
FEMA records showed only 601 displaced families in the state, but Pennsylvania school data show there were 3,187 school-age children displaced by Maria here, according to Will Gonzalez, executive director of Ceiba, an organization that promotes economic development and housing advocacy in the Latino community.
Those numbers show that there are more people in the state displaced by the hurricane than those who registered for help with FEMA.
“This goes against the narrative that people are trying to come here and take advantage of the system,” he said.
Pennsylvania — in particular Philadelphia, Allentown, Bethlehem, Reading, Lancaster, and Lebanon — have been among the most popular destinations after New York and Florida for Puerto Ricans who fled the hurricane, Gonzalez said. The smaller communities reflect people’s desire to live in communities that remind them of Puerto Rico, “because they are more affordable and there is more like a country life out there,” he said.
Cruz doesn’t want to return to the island. Even before the hurricane, Puerto Rico’s economic crisis made it hard for her to find work, even though she has some college experience. When she arrived in the United States, family friends had allowed Cruz’s sister to stay with them in New Jersey, but couldn’t allow Cruz and daughters Mideliz, Destiny, and Nagelie to stay without upsetting their landlord.
“They said it was too many people,” said Cruz. “I was sleeping on a mattress in a kitchen floor.”
But Cruz’s fortunes are changing. Philadelphia Housing Authority officials have promised her that by this weekend she will have an apartment near her new job as a cashier at a dollar store, which she attained herself by visiting daily and asking for an application.
“I keep looking at the phone thinking she is going to call me and say, come and look at your apartment,” Cruz said from her living room at the Windsor Suites.
Carlos Torres, 56, a single father who also has been staying at the Windsor Suites with his 17-year-old son, hasn’t had the same fortune.
Because his late mother had been among several fraud victims who paid rent to a company that failed in turn to pay the public housing agency in Puerto Rico, he is responsible for her debt and now does not qualify for PHA housing here, he said.
“My son and I may have to move into a shelter, and then maybe a charitable organization might be able to pay off the debt,” Torres said. “I haven’t been able to sleep. I’ve been feeling anxiety.”
Menzo and others on the committee — which, in addition to Liberty Lutheran, comprises the Association of Puerto Ricans on the March (APM), Taller Puertorriqueño, Ceiba, Concilio, Esperanza, United Church of Christ, the North Kensington Community Development Corp., the Red Cross and the Salvation Army — said they are working hard to find housing for him and his son.
Menzo said he might qualify for housing assistance through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, which can provide first and last month rent, plus a security deposit.
“If an apartment is not ready for Sunday, we are working on locations for transitional housing,” Menzo said. “We are working with managers in hotels and some of the churches have interim housing. We are working around the clock.”