Pennsylvania’s emergency response to Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria has been a failure: from FEMA and the federal government, to Gov. Wolf and the state government, to Mayor Kenney and city agencies.
Hurricane Maria — with its 155 mph winds and 30 hours of torrential rainfall — was not the only trauma these families experienced. Evacuees have remained engulfed in permanent crisis by the governments’ continuous and systemic failure to meet evacuees’ basic needs.
There is no safety net or path to permanent housing for more than 1,000 Puerto Rican families who arrived in Pennsylvania after the hurricane struck.
When it seemed that the Federal Emergency Management Agency would suddenly cut its Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) program for at least 20 families on April 20, evacuees and their children were plummeted into yet another disaster situation. Families were directed to Philadelphia’s Office of Supportive Housing (OSH), where they joined the long list of Philadelphia’s homeless. They were told that Philadelphia’s emergency shelters are at capacity and that they had the option of waiting in line nightly for space in a first-come, first-served overflow shelter. These overflow shelters fill to capacity regularly as well, however. After that, the only remaining option for these families is the street.
Thankfully, FEMA reversed its decision to cut the TSA program after Puerto Rican activists protested in Philadelphia and nationwide. But now, a new May 14 deadline looms. Officials have less than a month to put a path to housing in place for thousands of evacuees.
Federal emergency systems are broken. FEMA’s labyrinthine processes are incapable of handling any large-scale disaster, let alone one with the magnitude of Hurricane Maria. We have seen FEMA send evacuees misinformation about program end dates, demand impossibly complex legal paperwork, lose critical correspondence, and erroneously close cases.
As of Wednesday, the Department of Housing and Urban Development had not made emergency rental subsidies available or placed families in open units. We have not seen FEMA disburse any ongoing rental assistance to evacuees, even though hundreds of families should be eligible for a 100 percent rent subsidy for up to 18 months.
Wolf has neither released emergency funding for housing nor adequately advocated for evacuees. In February, Wolf and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló made an ugly farce of passing the buck. Each blamed the other for not initiating the paperwork to establish “host state” status from the federal government. Becoming a host state would cost the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania money, and Wolf lacked the political courage to locate state funding.
Kenney made only five Philadelphia Housing Authority “vouchers” available for families out of the at least 1,000 that need housing immediately. The Kenney administration pointed to the 44,000 other Philadelphia families on the waiting list for public housing, instead of fighting for solutions or making public demands on FEMA or HUD. Kenney’s response is merely a continuation of his do-nothing approach to Philadelphia’s housing crisis.
Where government has failed, individuals and nonprofits have made noble voluntary efforts to make up for the state’s gaping absence. The Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee (GPLTRC) has coordinated the meager resources available to it, created an intake system for evacuees, and advocated for housing funding. What can a voluntary coalition do, however, without a massive infusion of financial resources for evacuees? GPLTRC members are scrambling to organize without support from institutions that should be present in a crisis.
Most evacuees are staying with family in Philadelphia, so in effect, the government is relying on Philadelphia’s poorest community to single-handedly manage the recovery effort. In the Fairhill/West Kensington zip code, 19133, where a dense Puerto Rican community resides, the median income is $18,119.
Local volunteers run an intake center in Fairhill every Saturday, helping evacuees apply to FEMA and connecting them to jobs, free food, and English classes. Volunteers collected money for subway fares and donated toiletries. Volunteers have driven evacuees to get documents notarized, stored and transported trunks and suitcases as evacuees went into shelters, helped families get children registered for schools, and personally bought Greyhound bus tickets for evacuees who ran out of options in Philly.
Most evacuees have been living for months on family members’ living room floors, in basements, on air mattresses, cramped in single rented rooms, or in already-full city shelters.
Extraordinary circumstances call for extraordinary measures. Puerto Rican families have been in a state of emergency for more than seven months.
It’s long past time for FEMA, HUD, Wolf, and Kenney to take responsibility for the well-being of their constituents. We call on them to pull together a “housing first” plan with a simple path to no-cost housing for all evacuated families in Pennsylvania. It’s time for this crisis to end.
Grimaldi Baez and Ana Montañez work with Voces del Barrio, a grassroots movement comprised of community members who educate, empower, and inspire Puerto Ricans in Philadelphia.