Puerto Ricans in Philly telling others on the island 'Don't come here'

Charito Morales, right, speaks as part of a group of activists advocating for Puerto Rican families who came to Philadelphia following Hurricane Maria protest in front of FEMA's Philadelphia office in Philadelphia, PA on April 18, 2018. DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer

An activist who has been helping Puerto Ricans get back on their feet following Hurricane Maria had a message Wednesday for islanders considering Philadelphia: Don’t come here.

“There’s no long-term solution from the government,” Charito Morales, a nurse and advocate, said at a morning news conference outside of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Philadelphia office.

“We want the city to tell the truth,” she said. “They don’t have services. Stop coming to Philadelphia or Pennsylvania. They don’t have resources. They don’t have a place for you to live. Stay home, ask people to help you on the island.”

Morales’ frustration stems from the experience of hundreds of families who came to Philadelphia looking for jobs and housing after losing nearly everything in September’s Category 5 hurricane. Some got FEMA assistance for temporary housing, but many others have complained about not being able to get any aid from the local, state or federal governments. The lack of available public and subsidized housing has forced some evacuees into relatives’ basements and cramped apartments. The homeless shelters are operating at capacity most days.

On Friday, FEMA will stop paying to house some of the evacuee families at hotels. FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues couldn’t say how many of the 116 families currently in Pennsylvania hotels will be allowed to remain after Friday’s cuts. But even they won’t get much more help: FEMA plans to end the hotel subsidies nationwide by May 14.

Morales said the agency told her and other activists that 21 families in Philadelphia-area hotels will lose their housing aid this week. Flanked by several of the evacuees at the event, she said she wants FEMA to extend the hotel stays.

One of the evacuees who received a letter telling him FEMA would no longer pay for his hotel room was Jesus Campos. He has been staying at the Center City Holiday Inn since arriving in December with his wife and 12-year-old daughter.

Campos soon found work with a moving company. But with five-hour work days at $11 an hour, it’s not enough for a rental deposit and continued rent. He’s applied for rental assistance from another FEMA program, but every time he checks on his application status, he said, he gets a different answer — including that the agency has yet to receive required paperwork.

“It’s been agonizing,” Campos said.

His wife and daughter have returned to Puerto Rico. He promised them he would persevere until he found a better opportunity for them here. Moving back home is not really an option, he said.

“We don’t have power, the water is bad, there are rats in the river, there are dead cows and other dead animals,” he said.  “We lost everything. What we’re looking for is opportunity. We’re not looking to live off the government. Just that the government help us.”

The Philadelphia Housing Authority has two programs designed to help people like Campos and the other evacuees in the wake of a natural disaster. One is supposed to move victims of federally declared disasters to the top of the agency’s public housing wait list and another is supposed to provide immediate housing for up to 40 families based on referrals from the mayor.

Mayor Kenney, however, has only agreed to refer five evacuee families for public housing. The administration has said that it isn’t fair to allow newly arrived evacuees to skip the line for public housing when poor Philadelphia families have been waiting for years.

The city charged the Asociacion Puertorriquenos en Marcha (APM) and the Tenant Union Representative Network (TURN) with the selection process. The group focused on families that had individuals with mental or physical disabilities. Rick Olmos, spokesman for APM,  said 32 families were interviewed and five were chosen. He declined to name the five families.

Sandra Martinez said that about a month ago she was interviewed by a housing counselor at TURN. Neither she nor her husband are working. He has a pending disability benefits application based on liver and leg problems.

Martinez said she was told that once she was approved, she would get to select from three potential homes, and she would get one by May 1. Yet Martinez, who has three school-age boys, is still waiting for a call.

The Housing Authority is already settling the five selected families. Three need wheelchair-accessible units and will be accommodated, authority spokeswoman Nichole Tillman said.

“As soon as the families’ information has been verified  and completely processed, they will be able to move into their homes,” she said.

A city spokeswoman said Wednesday that various agencies were working to find housing options for those who will be kicked out of hotels Friday, but didn’t elaborate.