Reactive not Proactive
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the displaced families arriving in Hartford were in need of resources. However, institutions within Hartford faced many limitations when providing aid. The main limitation was a lack of time effective reactions; the response was initially too slow and was reactive rather than proactive.
There was not enough low cost/free housing available in Hartford, and as a result the displaced families were being placed in unstable, unsatisfactory residences for an unknown amount of time. Housing agencies and landlords were unaccommodating and inflexible regarding missing documentation of information, such as credit history, and demanded unnecessary, additional deposits. These obstacles to finding adequate housing was a prime example of the challenges that the displaced families faced. A Councilwoman stated that there are too many “roadblocks and policies that make it so that it’s really hard for [people] to really thrive” when they are transitioning into life in Hartford.
Another limitation that was emphasized throughout our interviews was the lack of structure and organized communication for a disaster situation such as Hurricane Maria. One representative from a social service organization stated that “there was no structure when it came to communication” between the organizations that were offering assistance to the displaced families. Various institutional representatives interviewed stated that there was not a formal plan or organization that allowed for an established form of communication between institutions which severely hurt the ability to provide services successfully. In addition, there was a failure to adequately support the CREC-led Welcome Center, the most successful intervention method. The hope for the Welcome Center was that those who partnered and stationed their services at the Welcome Center would say “You know what? We want to partner with you. We want to keep this place open. And here’s some money to keep it open together. But we couldn’t do it by ourselves and no one came. So we had to close…”. There was no community funding put forth to keep the Center going and to share funds to ensure the fundamental services provided in the Center would continue.
According to The Relief Center for Our Caribbean Friends Metrics Report, the CREC-led Welcome Center officially opened on November 1, 2017, about two weeks after preparations began internally at the agency. Over $8,000 was raised internally before private donations began coming in, “100% of which went to benefit the people serviced at the center.” Reluctantly, the center closed its doors due to lack of continuing funds on March 17, 2018 after servicing 2,612 individuals.
Failure to Report Resources
There were typical limitations such as a lack of funding for institutions committed to providing aid to the displaced families. The lack of preparedness for the amount of individuals who migrated to Hartford created additional constraints when devising a plan to assist the families. However, the biggest limitation amongst the organizations in Hartford was the failure to report where funds were allocated and how they were used. One representative from City Council emphasized this issue when speaking about public approval of the services that were provided by institutions in Hartford. The City Council member mentioned that $90,000 is still unaccounted for that was meant to be provided to two non-profit institutions. There was no report of where the money went or how it was dispersed, which has led to misunderstandings and mistrust between the public and the institutions.
Negative Experiences of the Displaced Families
Temporary and Unstable Housing
The displaced families who were interviewed are all now living in apartments in Hartford or have relocated outside of the city after their initial migration after Hurricane Maria. However, although many are living in apartments, the majority of the families who were interviewed revealed that they still do not feel as though they have stable housing. A woman told us that “todavía no siento esa tranquilidad de que tengo un hogar ahora”: “I still do not feel the calm of having a home right now”. This instability is a result of the difficulty in distributing a small paycheck among bills for rent, electricity, and food. Of all of the families interviewed, organizations that provided housing assistance were not helpful. Although many stated that they did not receive any aid in finding housing at all and had to search completely on their own, those who turned to FEMA and 2-1-1 were disappointed with the help they were provided. In one instance, a family reached out to 2-1-1 for assistance; “Nos dijeron que ‘no tenía un fondo’, que no nos podían ayudar”: “they told us that ‘we don’t have a fund’ and that they could not help us.” Others seeking help from these agencies found that certain requirements were needed to be eligible for aid among housing institutions in the city, documents were required, and communication regarding the extent of the aid was ineffective. When asked about where they went to find help with housing, one family stated “En ningún lado, porque yo no cojo ayuda por gobierno, se paga privado”: “nowhere, because I don’t get help from the government, I pay private” to emphasize the lack of access to adequate government assistance.
Barriers to Employment Opportunities
Through the various interviews that were completed, it became evident that notice of available job opportunities came from family and friends of the displaced families also living in Hartford. Hamilton Connections and the Salvation Army were two organizations that successfully advertised job openings and assisted with job placement, however, the majority of the displaced families that we spoke with had heard of jobs from people they knew personally because they did not know where to turn to for help. In one interview, someone mentioned “me hubiese gustado en el sentido de que hubiera un lugar, una agencia que pudiera ir y trataban de ayudar a las personas un poquito más”: “I would have liked that there was a place, an agency that could try to help people a little bit more.” In addition, the jobs that have been available to the displaced families generally rely on physical labor and tend to be temporary jobs. In regard the the drastic change between occupations in Puerto Rico and the employment opportunities in Hartford, one woman said that “cambié tacones por botas de trabajo, a trabajar fuerte, trabajo físico.”: “I traded heels for work boots, to work hard, and to work physical labor.” This extreme change in occupations resulted in significant stress and trauma for one individual. She told us that the temporary jobs and the continuous changes and instability “me daba muchas palpataciones en el corazón…me generaba mucha ansiedad y muchos ataques de pánico”: “gave me many heart palpataciones…generated for me a lot of anxiety and many panic attacks.” The lack of employment opportunities that were available to the displaced families severely affected their mental health, their housing stability, their food security, and their sense of comfort in Hartford.
Lack of Access to Mental Health Services
An important failure that must be noted is the extreme lack of access to mental health services that were available to the displaced families. Significant trauma, stress, and confusion was experienced by the families who migrated from Puerto Rico. Each family interviewed mentioned that they are still struggling today with negative mental health that began after they left their home in Puerto Rico and came to Hartford.