Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last September, spiraling the island into a cycle of endless devastation overnight. Even today, my homeland is still suffering the effects of the catastrophic cyclone’s furious winds and rains.
One of the most devastating consequences of the hurricane: Six percent of Puerto Rico’s population left after Maria, leaving the island with few to rebuild it. But Maria’s destruction has asphyxiated more than just my homeland’s resources. Philadelphia has received a good chunk of the evacuee influx coming into the United States, with more than 900 displaced families having already arrived.
These evacuees are ready to begin their lives here and contribute to their new home. However, they left a humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico and found themselves in another in Pennsylvania. The local, state, and federal systems in place to support them have failed to meet the needs of Maria’s survivors. To make matters worse, Puerto Ricans are already among the poorest groups in the city.
It’s up to Philadelphians to fill the gaping holes of the city’s abysmal relief response. What can you do for the displaced evacuees? Think critically about your skills, talents, and resources. Here’s a list of ideas to get you started.
Carlos Torres wakes up every morning at 5 a.m. He makes breakfast for his son, and sends him off to school. Then he counts his SEPTA tokens, to ensure he has enough to drop off resumés at every business he can find. Living out of a FEMA-sponsored hotel, his days with housing are numbered and dwindling. Time and tokens are of the essence.
>> How you can help: Donate to this GoFundme for Puerto Rican Hurricane Maria evacuees, so Carlos and others like him can travel around the city to find work.
Melanie García looks after her three young children every day. All three kids are under 5 years old and her 3-year-old is deaf and learning sign language. Melanie hopes to find employment soon so her family can afford a permanent apartment. However, she worries about who will take care of her children once she secures a full-time position.
>> How you can help: Many of the evacuees are young single parents, often mothers, who are looking for jobs while also handling the challenges of single parenting. Offer free or reduced-cost daycare for their children.
Forgo or lessen housing deposits
Irma Cabrera spend hours every day walking around North Philadelphia to find housing for her family of four. At night, she collapses into bed with swollen feet. When she does find a place that suits her family’s needs, it is rarely affordable or she’s turned away by landlords.
>> How you can help: If you are a landlord, forgo first/last deposit and security fees for Puerto Rican evacuees looking for housing. Reach out to the Long Term Recovery Committee if you are interested in renting out to displaced Puerto Ricans.
Raúl Berríos is a 63-year-old musician and teacher who has not been able to land steady gigs. In addition to having a young son, Berrios is also sick with cancer and speaks little English. This has made the job search difficult. He brought his teaching materials, and hopes to use them soon with new students.
Advocate and organize for evacuees
The Burdoy family lives in a hotel in central Philadelphia. While looking for work and permanent housing in Philly, FEMA has threatened to evict them unexpectedly multiple times, leaving the family no time to make plans besides ending up homeless and traumatized. They need Philadelphians like you to advocate on their behalf, both through contact with elected officials and by supporting the work of organizers. Demonstrations have been successful in extending transitional housing.
>> How you can help: Make phone calls demanding a fully funded “housing first” plan for all evacuee families to Mayor Kenney’s office at 215-686-2186, Gov. Wolf’s office at 717-787-2500, and the HUD Regional Office at 215-656-3445. Attend any demonstrations called by organizers and evacuees through Voces del Barrio and allies.
Invite kids to participate in youth activities
Maria Monet left to give her kids a better future. The loss of jobs post-Maria made her fear the uptick in the drug trade and that her children could swallowed by it. Instead of being on the streets, her three adolescents now have the opposite problem: They rarely leave the hotel room since they attend online school. They are bored and holed up at their hotel on most days.
>> How you can help: Invite Puerto Rican youth via Charito Morales at the Providence Center to participate in your youth sports or arts group programming.
Volunteer to help with case management
Jurabe Arroyo works at a U-Haul one hour from Philly so his family can eventually move out of his stepmother’s basement. Receiving support to navigate FEMA’s complicated, English-dominated bureaucracy could help him secure rental assistance.
>> How you can help: Volunteer some of your Saturday mornings to the pop-up center helping evacuees manage their FEMA cases at the Lillian Marrero branch of the Free Library, which is in a historically Puerto Rican neighborhood. The volunteers call FEMA on evacuees’ behalf and talk to them about what they need.
Teach English-as-a-second-language classes
Mari Rivera is from rural Puerto Rico and speaks no English. This makes it difficult to make friends, find jobs, and navigate the city. At the doctor’s, she can’t advocate for herself as a trans woman pursuing gender reassignment surgery.
>> How you can help: Offer classes to evacuees at the Lillian Marrero Branch of the Free Library.
Syra Ortiz-Blanes is a Puerto Rican poet and journalist. She has been covering the Puerto Rican evacuee crisis in Philadelphia since Hurricane Maria hit last September. Read more in-depth profiles of Puerto Rican evacuees through the Voices of Maria, a series published by the Philadelphia Citizen.