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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Puerto Rican hurricane victims are about to lose an important support

Puerto Rican hurricane victims will lose one of

Puerto Rican hurricane victims will lose one of the government's only concrete supports this week. Will any of New York's politicians step up to support them? Photo Credit: AFP/Getty Images / RICARDO ARDUENGO

June 30 is just another day for most New Yorkers, but it’s more serious for more than 120 families in the state who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricanes Maria and Irma in the fall.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, as of Monday they are staying in hotel rooms across the state through the agency’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, a concrete governmental effort made to help these people who left homes with no power, no water, little food.

That federal assistance program is ending, even though Puerto Rico is far from ready to take back its full diaspora. And the families left in hotels, many of them in NYC, are wondering what comes next.

If you ask some of the people who lived in those hotels (a number constantly in flux) what their experience was like in New York City, there is a common thread:

“Nobody helped us,” says Kelly Barbosa, who spent time in different hotels in Brooklyn while trying to find permanent housing before giving up and going back to Gurabo in May.

Barbosa, 39, doesn’t mean it literally. There was help for her and her two kids during their eight or so months in New York. They picked up gift cards and clothing vouchers at an East Harlem support center courtesy of the city. They applied for food stamps. They had the FEMA hotel money, though that safety blanket never gave more than the illusion of permanence, bouncing around as they were from room to room, hotel to hotel. What they really wanted was an affordable place to live more permanently, every New Yorker’s dream, but of course they soon find that such places are in short supply here.

Those difficulties are why Barbosa decided to go back to Puerto Rico, a home with a leaky roof and no functioning refrigerator. The afternoon Barbosa arrived back in Gurabo, the power went out until 2 a.m.

What happened?

Barbosa is just part of the trickle of hurricane victims heading back to Puerto Rico, or leaving New York more generally because life here was not as easy as it looked a plane-flight away. And mainland life is only going to get harder with the end of the hotel payments this week.

It was clear from the beginning that hurricane victims would need housing here. And it was equally clear that permanent housing wasn’t going to be easily available, no matter the depth of New York’s historic connection to the Caribbean island.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said as much in October: “I don’t want to encourage people to come here if they don’t have some family to turn to.”

He added that the city was under enormous housing pressure already. That’s true. There are always newcomers here who have their own desperate stories. There are always native New Yorkers who need help finding a place to live, and that’s on de Blasio’s plate as well. Into this nexus came the Puerto Ricans fresh from an island of power outages, looking for a fresh start.

They received some help from New York officials and nonprofits to get accustomed to life here. But with housing, that most sought-after commodity, they found only the immediate options available to all — nights in city shelters, where some of the thousands of Puerto Rican storm victims in NY have ended up already as a place of last resort. The city has been unforthcoming on how many hurricane victims are staying in city shelters, and that number changes regularly. But according to an estimate from the Public Advocate’s office that matches estimates of social service workers, shelters are currently home to some 250 evacuee families. (“These numbers are not accurate,” said de Blasio spokeswoman Jaclyn Rothenberg, who declined to cite other figures to fill in the blank.)

The state and city have been major advocates for Puerto Rico on the often out-to-lunch federal level. They sent extensive aid and recovery teams to Puerto Rico proper.

But in the zero-sum game of NYC housing support, local help wasn’t forthcoming.

Now, with the FEMA hotel money about to run out, some of the more vulnerable hurricane victims will have their starkest moment of adjusting to life in NY.

The federal government has not committed to most major housing assistance, pointing instead to smaller support like money to fly back to Puerto Rico.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office did not describe any new state efforts beyond saying, “We are actively working through options to support displaced Puerto Ricans living in New York hotels.”

The New York City Council’s newly signed $89 billion budget did not include specifically allocated funding for hurricane victims’ direct services. (Other groups funded by the council do provide general support.)

The council and the administration have been in talks about aiding the displaced victims at the deadline. De Blasio is expected to announce some next moves for Puerto Rican families before the FEMA deadline, but some advocates and service providers are concerned about the late hour and lackluster progress so far.

Top of mind is the fear that families that have been housed for now in hotels might find no option but the city’s crowded shelter system.

“The city and state have waited until the last possible second,” says Peter Gudaitis, executive director of the nonprofit New York Disaster Interfaith Services. For the hurricane victims, that kind of uncertainty is “disturbingly stressful.”

“We’re in the final stages of our plan’s development and will have more to say on this soon,” said Rothenberg, from de Blasio’s office.

Hurricane victims currently packing their bags for San Juan or less expensive cities here will surely be eagerly watching.

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