Community Effort Helping Puerto Rican Evacuees
The Puerto Rican families are now being scattered across the state and available housing continues to be an enormous challenge. We would ask people to contact us if they know of any available housing. Governor Baker has signed a bill granting the individual participants financial support for first, last and security deposits. However, these funds can only be released when each household has a place to live. All participants are looking for social housing. At this time, they are able to allocate 1/3 of their monthly salary to rent. Financial assistance is available to help with the rest. Anyone having information on available housing is asked to contact the DJWC by email at email@example.com.
The Dedham Junior Women’s Club has a vital effort underway to help Puerto Rican evacuees in their resettlement effort. With the support of An Unlikely Story Bookstore and Café in Plainville, MA and WBUR we are seeking donations to assist the relocation of Puerto Rican evacuees’ that have received temporary housing in the greater Dedham area.
We want to identify resources to assist the Puerto Rican community to:
- secure housing
- lend a hand to obtain employment in their new community, and
- raise funds that will help our new, Puerto Rican neighbors get established.
Please donate to help us continue our support to Puerto Rican families and individuals in Dedham temporary housing who have been displaced due to Hurricane Maria. For more information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dedham Junior Women’s Club (DJWC) has a long term, neighbor-to-neighbor, volunteer mindset. When Hurricane Maria reached Puerto Rico, on September 20, 2017, it had sustained winds of 155 mile per hour. When it made landfall, it killed at least 55 people. The island’s infrastructure was completely destroyed. In the months to follow, the death toll rose to 1,426. Thousands of Puerto Rican residents became homeless.
Following the volunteer spirit that defines the club, DJWC quickly sent $500 to Puerto Rico through the American Red Cross, as it had done when Hurricane Irma hit the Florida Keys and Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, TX. Little did anyone imagine that the neighbor-to-neighbor mindset would, within a short period of time, be called upon for Puerto Rican evacuees right here in Dedham, MA.
The fall months brought several waves of evacuees to Dedham. The Dedham School System, under the direction of Superintendent Mike Welch, and the religious communities banded together to help the new families prepare for a New England winter. Thereafter, other community groups helped the newcomers over the holidays and well into the New Year bringing toys, school supplies, books, clothes, baby items, and food. The Dedham Library, under the direction of Bonnie Roalson, offered free English language tutoring to prepare resumes, fill out job applications, and help the new residents build English language skills. DJWC members became tutors. Still new waves of evacuees kept coming. The list of needs grew—doctor visits, housing applications, job interviews, and lots of red tape.
In the dead of winter, a dozen families lost their FEMA coverage. Fortunately, the Red Cross picked up their housing support. The individuals moved to another Dedham hotel. Over the course of the spring, the evacuees were forced to move multiple times from hotel-to-hotel. Each time, they took their children out of schools, reworked their job schedules, and scrambled to rent U-Haul trucks.
When the DJWC saw the many challenges and the effects that these had on our new neighbors, especially the children, the group stepped up to help. Twice a month the women cooked meals, gathered at the community tables in the hotel lobbies, and offered friendship and support. Throughout the spring, DJWC continued to transport individuals to look for housing, to job interviews, and to visit social agencies. They worked with Representative Paul McMurtry and Senator Elizabeth Warren to seek solutions: SNAP benefits and MBTA transportation cards. Soon it became evident the most pressing need was long term housing. The families could not establish daily routines and rebuild their lives without food security, a place to live, and job stability.
To date permanent housing remains critical. There is a housing backlog in the Boston area and a long waiting list. The staff at the Home for Little Wanderers and other agencies that process applications for social housing are overwhelmed. All the while, the families continue to appeal their cases. Agencies are slow to respond. Over and over, FEMA and Red Cross officials told the newcomers their funding was being terminated. Social agencies scramble to find solutions. Affordable housing is in extremely short supply. The families pray for help to move forward.
Meanwhile, faced with the loss of FEMA support, the families live in crisis mode. They receive lists of shelters but no guarantee of a place. Where would they sleep when FEMA and Red Cross funding end? Pulled and pushed by uncertainty, they place their suitcases at the door only to find, at the last minute, that FEMA and the Red Cross granted an extension. Once again, the hotels receive word. The Puerto Rican evacuees have another, brief continuation.
Puerto Rican community here in Massachusetts is between threat and devastation. More recently, FEMA and Red Cross coverage has ended and a judge has extended the evacuees stay for a few more week. The federal government’s offers of airline tickets back home to an island still struggling to overcome the lack of infrastructure– electricity, water, and housing–from Hurricane Maria, does not offer a realistic choice for survival let alone the chance to thrive. Now, the first of the 2018 hurricanes is headed for the Caribbean.
This scenario has been played out over and over across Massachusetts. But life continues. In talking with the new residents, DJWC learned that working in a warm climate in the Caribbean is quite different from working in the harsh New England climate. So, in an effort to encourage hope and to build confidence, we offered several workshops on problem-solving and communication skills. We soon picked up on the ingenuity of the families to make crafts, to build a barter system, and to cook new dishes. We encouraged them to start businesses and look for jobs in new fields. We also learned that some professionals need to take licensing examinations and classes to work in Massachusetts.
The DJWC took this challenge to heart. As women, we knew the cost for continuing education is steep. So, we went to the general membership. How could the club better support all women? With deliberation and determination the club developed an Empowerment Grant to help any Dedham woman that wants to take a course to advance her career.
The exchange between the Dedham community and the Puerto Rican community has not been unidirectional. In mid-April the Allin Congregational Church and Pastor Cheryl Kerr opened the church’s kitchen to the Puerto Ricans families. With winter behind us and spring celebrations surrounding us, our new neighbors were definitely homesick for familiar Puerto Rican cuisine. (Hotel microwaves just don’t do much for flavorful eating.) Hearing the problem Pastor Kerr provided the opportunity for the chefs and sous-chefs from the island to cook for their community and to invite the DJWC. Shopping, chopping, cooking, laughing, dancing, and serving the arroz con gandules (with pork loin meat) and the onion with oil and spices not only created a fantastic sauce for the “mojo isleňo” chicken but also allowed the two groups to socialize.
The chefs began preparations at 10:00 am and at 10:00 pm folks were still sitting together swapping stories. The experience of ‘Community Cooking for Community’ delighted all 50 attendees!
There were other opportunities and events where Dedhamites and Puerto Ricans celebrated together: birthdays (big and small) and even a wedding. Another area where we successfully collaborated was spring tryouts. With the help of Dedham coaches the Puerto Rican children tried out and signed up for spring sports. Play It Again, sporting goods store, generously outfitted the players with balls, gloves, and shoes. On the first day, every kid was ready to play!
Still and all, the evacuees’ many problems remain. How can we help the Puerto Rican newcomers continue to make progress toward resettlement? Some are still seeking employment. Housing presents a challenge. Moreover once the individuals receive housing, they need furnishings–table and chairs, beds, pots and pans, and transportation to their new homes. Additionally, the children need summer support to continue learning English. Then, and only then, can our Puerto Rican neighbors truly resettle, build job security, improve their English, continue their education, and help their children get ready for school in September.
The DJWC continues to put its energy and the club’s volunteer resources behind the resettlement of our Puerto Rican neighbors. Nonetheless, much remains to be done before we can say our new neighbors can move on with their lives.
If you or your organization would like to help or to donate to the Community Development Effort, please contact us at email@example.com