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Puerto Ricans in PA find helping hands

UCC's collaborate with other faith-based organizations to help evacuees find resources, jobs, homes.

February 10, 2018

Nearly five months after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, evacuees who fled the island to the US mainland are struggling to put their lives back together. In Pennsylvania, the United of Church of Christ (UCC) Disaster Ministries has been working with other faith partners to assist the new residents find support, housing and jobs.

Based on the experience at a Disaster Assistance Services Center in Philadelphia, seven other PA cities are planning local resource fairs. The Philadelphia center, a public-private collaborative initiative was opened by Office of Emergency Management (OEM), in cooperation with Pennsylvania state agencies and the Southeast Pennsylvania Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (SEPA VOAD).

"We are partnering with local and county governments, community organizations, our faith-based colleagues, businesses and employers to bring help to the evacuees," said UCC Pennsylvania Southeast Conference (PSEC) Disaster Coordinator Karl Jones. PSEC has been the lead voluntary agency in the Philadelphia project.

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College predicts 27,000 Puerto Ricans may migrate to PA by the end of this year.

Jones is part of a team that is traveling to present the fairs. In January, resource fairs were held in Harrisburg, Lancaster, Lebanon, Reading, Allentown and Bethlehem. Additional fairs currently are scheduled for February 12 at Union Lutheran Church, 20 S. Penn St., York, and on February 13 at the Salvation Army, 3150 N. Mascher St., Philadelphia.

"Months after the hurricane, the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico continues," Jones said. "Many people are still without electricity and struggling with shortages of food and water. Many who have evacuated lost everything to the hurricane. All are seeking a 'safe space' away from the destruction to consider their next steps.

"How we show our love for these evacuees will be a living testimony to our love for neighbor, for children, and for the earth."

The fairs have been "very busy - space limited, crowded, hot, and productive," Jones said. "We have heard people's stories and tried to connect them to the services they need. We have had some success with that task."

Help is being offered with employment, immunizations, voter registration, professional licensing, health screenings, disaster relief, housing, education (primary, secondary, and higher education), birth certificates (from Puerto Rico), banking, food/clothing vouchers, emotional, spiritual and mental health needs, and driver’s licenses, he said.

"We have also helped people check on their FEMA benefits status, working closely with the FEMA Individual Assistance staff who have been in the fairs. Many times it only takes changing one check (box) in an application to start benefits flowing. Our presence in these fairs also increased our profile with the many private and governmental agencies who are stepping up to help the evacuees," Jones said.

A fund supported by grants from UCC Disaster Ministries, PSEC, and contributions from local churches, has been used to provide temporary housing for evacuees as they begin to transition from Temporary Sheltering Assistance (TSA) to Rental Assistance. "We are finding more and more people who have been scrubbed (dropped) from the TSA roll," Jones said.

Examples of the sort of assistance the UCC teams have been able to provide include:

  • A family with three young children had been staying at a hotel, paid by TSA until that assistance was discontinued.  The UCC grant helped to provide temporary housing until a more permanent solution could be found.

  • A man had been relocated by the American Red Cross to Pennsylvania after the hurricane was able to put a rental deposit on an apartment thanks to the UCC grant.

  • A family with two children came from Puerto Rico on Dec. 10 to stay with a friend, but the friend lives in Section 8 housing which meant the guest family had to leave. A UCC grant helped them put a deposit on an apartment.

  • A family with two children was looking for assistance with rent.  The man had started to work and they wanted to stay in Pennsylvania. They had been temporarily staying with a relative, but needed to move. The UCC grant helped to them place a deposit on an apartment.

    "Not only are the needs for adults, more than 2,000 youth and children have also arrived," Jones said. "The education system is trying to integrate these students. Special services are required to meet these needs.

    "The United Church of Christ has been responding to the needs of these new residents in the spirit of our Three Great Loves initiative a world where all are welcomed, everyone is loved and justice is inherent. As Puerto Rico faces its most devastating situation in modern history, the United Church of Christ stands with our fellow American citizens during these challenging times. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of people who desperately need hope."

    In addition to serving on the resources fair team, Jones is helping assemble resources for work with evacuees who have spiritual, emotional and/or psychological health issues, and is co-leading a team working on an integrated case management system for Pennsylvania.

    "The UCC does not do case management, but we build the relationships and systems needed for quality, collaborative work," Jones said. "Toward that end, the UCC has obtained the 'Routine Use Letter' on behalf of the Pennsylvania VOAD, which allows us work with the Red Cross to provide an integrated platform for those who are providing case management for the evacuees."

    Click here to support UCC Disaster Ministries in the US.

    This article is based on a story written by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo and published on the UCC Disaster Ministries Website.

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