The Urgency of Dignified Housing for People Seeking Shelter in Puerto Rico After Hurricane María Is Real

Efforts to identify suitable housing alternatives —even temporary ones— have been slower than expected.

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One of the classrooms used as a shelter at the Domingo Aponte Collazo School in Lares, Puerto Rico

Photo by Eduardo Meléndez | Center for Investigative Journalism

Alberto Ramos Rivera wants his house back, but his health prevents him from removing the pieces of wood, zinc, and other accumulating debris that have kept his home unlivable for more than two months.

María Sánchez was offered an apartment in a public housing complex, but restrictions on her son’s probation don’t allow her to live there.

Meanwhile, Pascual Ofray prefers the streets of Salinas, instead of living in the shelter he was sent to—which is far away from the town he knows and loves.

These examples reflect the complexity of a process attempting to address housing needs as a result of Hurricane María’s destruction in Puerto Rico.

For some of the nearly 900 people who still live in shelters established by the government almost three months after the hurricane, efforts to identify suitable housing alternatives —even temporary ones— have been slower than expected. Among the displaced, there are those who believe that the process has been anything but dignified, in addition to other things, because it has lacked sensitivity and has not taken people’s needs into account.

Ramos Rivera is 52 years old. He currently spends his days and nights in San Juan’s only open shelter—the indoor court located at the headquarters of the Department of Recreation and Sports (DRD). His house is in Bayamón’s Guaraguao neighborhood, but all the shelters in that municipality were closed several weeks ago. The DRD court is Ramos Rivera’s fifth shelter since he left his home to seek help the day after the storm.

Photo courtesy of Alberto Ramos Rivera

Alberto Ramos Rivera in front of his home in Bayamón’s Guaraguao neighborhood.

“The people who really need help are not getting help. Look here [pointing to different areas in the shelter]. These are families, sick people, people who receive monthly assistance [from the government],” he told the Center for Investigative Journalism (CPI).

With Social Security as his only source of income, Ramos Rivera explained that when the Bayamón shelters closed, the municipal government offered to pay two months rent for a house, while they repaired his property, but that proposal never materialized. He said the government promised to remove the debris around his house so he could live in it.

He is still waiting.

“I’ve wanted to leave here so many times, but I have nowhere to go,” he said, as he let out a laugh that he immediately suppressed. “What you have to do is laugh, and hurl the occasional ‘coño’ and ‘carajo’.”

Photo courtesy of Alberto Ramos Rivera

Alberto Ramos Rivera’s home, in Bayamón’s Guaraguao neighborhood, was destroyed by Hurricane María.

As the days pass, life in the shelter becomes more stressful and hostile for Ramos Rivera. He tries to add a little “normal” to his routine with music and coffee. He managed to rescue his espresso machine from the trail of debris left by the hurricane, and every day, he prepares the drink to comfort him and his companions on nearby cots.

“For me, that is therapeutic. I entertain myself with the machine, frothing the milk, throwing sugar, the cinnamon. Those are the things that try to bring you back to normal, bring you back to life: coffee and music,” says Ramos Rivera, who settled in Puerto Rico about a decade ago after living for years in New York.

He retired as a welder from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He injured his back at his former job and has problems in one knee. He suffers from neuropathy and fibromyalgia. To move, he uses a motorized chair or a walker, and he placed an inflatable mattress on his shelter cot to cushion the impact of the rigid bed on his injured body.

His passion for music has caused problems with some “neighbors” in the shelter, who have complained or scolded him for his raucous distraction, he told the CPI. This situation even led to several police officers intervening a few days ago.

“I’ve been free all my life. I decide what I eat, when I take a bath, how I dress. I have done what I want all my life. I have never been deprived of my freedom. This is my house now. I’m supposed to be free, and I’m not free,” he said.

Ramos Rivera says he feels pressure to leave the shelter as soon as possible. During the altercation over the music, he feared that authorities would use that dispute as a reason to expel him.

“They are so desperate that they are using excuses, like problems among people, to get us out… To go back home, I have to wait for FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] to inspect the damage, remove the debris, prepare the roof to keep the water away and rehabilitate the bottom part so I can live there. That takes time, and they want me to leave now,” he explained.

According to official data, almost three months after María hit the island on September 20, there were 909 people living in 40 shelters. At its peak, there were about 15,000 people in 245 shelters.

What the Government Is Saying

Secretary of Housing Fernando Gil Enseñat admitted that he is facing difficulties, but argued that the challenges of relocating the displaced, as well as their complaints and dissatisfaction, are natural consequences of the process.

Gil Enseñat said that he had to quickly address the closure of shelters located in schools, which had not been able to resume classes because they were serving as temporary housing centers.

The Secretary of Housing had told the Department of Education that all schools that served as shelters would be ready for students by November 27. However, when the deadline expired, nine schools were still sheltering people. Today, two schools continue to shelter people.

When asked why his department could not meet its goal, Gil Enseñat said there were problems with localization, noting that “there is no availability to keep people close to their community.” He mentioned that earlier in the recovery phase, he considered relocating people to the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Company’s empty factories, but FEMA nixed that idea. According to Gil Enseñat, FEMA said there were no environmental studies to recommend structural improvements for the facility that would meet the demands of a shelter.

The push to reopen schools and the lack of immediate alternatives to relocate people have caused clashes in some temporary housing centers. One of the most recent incidents happened on November 17 at the Francisco García Boyrie School in Guayama’s Costa Azul urbanization, where people living in the shelter confronted teachers who had arrived to prepare classrooms in anticipation of the school’s reopening.

According to some people living in that school shelter, staff members of M. J. Consulting & Development, Inc., which was acting as the facility’s managing agent, made a 10 a.m. announcement, telling people they had three hours to leave or else the police would be contacted. The police’s Tactical Operations Unit had to intervene, and people living in the shelter were transferred to community centers in the Fernando Calimano and Luis Palés Matos public housing residences, both located in Guayama.

Photo by NotiCel

Fernando Gil Enseñat

“There are always going to be some parties who will be dissatisfied with the result for X or Y reason. It’s human nature, I say. We do everything humanly possible so that one, the person who suffered the damage, who has no home, is able to be in a safe, healthy place, and two, also know that we are in a recovery stage and it is up to us that people continue with their lives, so that teachers continue teaching students,” the Secretary of Housing said.

“It’s a very difficult process. It means that people go talk to people, looking for alternatives. Many times it is very difficult to find viable alternatives. The greater the amount of availability, the easier this relocation. While the number of shelters decrease, it’s more difficult to find alternatives, because we don’t have many viable locations for people who are displaced,” he acknowledged.

Gil Enseñat believed that the arrogant attitude, according to people in shelters, exhibited by M. J. Consulting & Development employees was unacceptable. However, he admitted that he has not discussed the incident with company executives. He said that on one occasion he ordered the removal of an employee from a management company —which he did not want to identify— after receiving complaints about how this employee treated people living in shelters. He also did not share information requested by the CPI about shelter complaints or indicate if he has taken action with any management company.

Although the Department of Housing is the agency in charge of shelters, it delegates facilities management to a dozen companies who are acting as administrative agents for the duration of the emergency. These companies also manage public housing projects, and the assignment of shelters were distributed by the regions where the public housing complexes being managed by these companies are located.

The contract between the Public Housing Administration, also headed up by Gil Enseñat, and each of the companies was signed on September 18, two days before Hurricane María. It is valid until March 31, with the possibility of a six-month extension. The public corporation agreed to pay a fee of $7 per day for each person being housed in a shelter, up to a maximum of $160,000 for the duration of the contract with the company. The resources come from federal funds managed by the public housing entity.

“We Are Human Beings”

“What they want to do here is to get people out, period, and it’s over. They removed ten people from Costa Azul and placed them in apartments without water and power. What they want is to get everyone out of here. That was happening every day. There is no communication, and you have to go, period. That is M.J.’s company attitude. To put pressure on people, to play with someone’s mind. We are human beings. Even an animal is treated with more decency. It’s as if we were nothing. I throw you over there, and here you stay,” said María Sánchez, who stays overnight at the community center of the Fernando Calimano public housing residence in Guayama’s urban center.

Sánchez lives there with her 30-year-old son. She said the management company’s employees have treated them insensitively and with disdain. This is her third shelter. She explained that the experience not only has her in a state of constant anxiety, but has also aggravated her heart problems. The day the police intervened in the controversy with the teachers, Sánchez ended up in the hospital due to accelerated heart palpitations. She said that it torments her to live under threat of perpetual eviction. She is worried about her fate.

The CPI tried to contact Carmen Cuevas, the director of M. J. Consulting, but she was not available.

One of the first housing options offered by the Department of Housing to people seeking shelter is an apartment in a public housing project, but Sánchez noted that alternative is not valid for her because her son is on probation for a domestic violence case and, as part of the restrictions, he cannot live in public housing complexes. As an exception, authorities allowed him to take shelter in the community center of the Calimano residences, where he and his mother live now.

Sánchez insists the communication from FEMA and the Department of Housing has not been clear or sufficient, and she has even obtained contradictory information from Guayama’s municipal government about the help should could receive for her situation.

During the past weeks, displaced people in Guayama have said their mental health has deteriorated. Several witnessed the anguish in some families who couldn’t be with each other because shelter rules separate men from women. According to accounts told to the CPI, many saw how loneliness led to a sense of hopelessness. One person even witnessed how the emergency caused one companion to attempt suicide.

“I’m seeing this [handled] as if we were criminals. I am not seeing it as a disaster or as a humanitarian problem. I am not seeing it channeled in a way where we are not being seen as being more affected that we really are. I’m seeing it as this is a brutal mandate. Because of that, we throw ourselves into the street to live because we do not want more pressure than we already have. And what about the children, us, and the elderly, will they psychologically respond to this pressure? We will end up being more affected,” said Luis Ortiz, another person seeking shelter in Guayama.

Back to Salinas

A short distance away, in the Luis Palés Matos public housing residence, Numidia Martínez Pérez waits for the moment when she can return to the town of Salinas. The 61-year-old woman was relocated with another 12 people at the Guayama facility due to the urgency of reopening the Carlos Colón Burgos School. The Salinas school was able to resume operations in late November, but the people who lived there for weeks are now waiting for the day when they can return to the town they call home.

“They did not tell me I was coming here [to Guayama]. Here I do not count at all to anyone because I do not have relatives. I am here, waiting for help, but I cannot stay here,” she insisted.

Martínez Pérez does not have a car or cell phone. She does have a sister who lives in Santa Isabela and who visited her when she was staying in Salinas. The trip to Guayama, however, is not as easy. When Martínez Pérez was in the previous shelter, she fell in the dining room and said that the fall broke her clavicle. However, she does not know the magnitude of the injury, since she has not been able to collect the x-ray results from the place it was performed in Salinas.

Along with Pascual Ofray, a 67-year-old man, Martínez Pérez protested the transfer to Guayama, during the government’s efforts to consolidate and reduce existing shelters. Ofray, who is from Salinas’ La Playa sector, said he preferred to return and wander the streets of his hometown rather than stay in Guayama.

“I’m going to the streets if they did not give me room. I did not want to leave my town. I was born there, and I do not know anyone here [in Guayama] either. There [in Salinas] they know me,” he said.

No Record of Aid Available by the Government of Puerto Rico

More than 75,000 homes in Puerto Rico were completely destroyed due to Hurricane Maria, while about 335,000 suffered minor or moderate damage, according to the Department of Housing.

In addition to public housing apartments, the agency offers the possibility of applying for the federal Section 8 program to subsidize rent for people with limited economic resources.

Gil Enseñat did not provide statistics for the aid that had been granted so far. Prior to Hurricane María, he said that the Public Housing Administration had about 1,500 units available, and about 800 are already occupied.

Since late October, the Department of Housing announced that it would start the Tu Hogar Renace (Your Home Is Reborn) program with FEMA funds to make minor repairs —such as replacing doors and windows, and correcting leaks— so that a residence is functional. Officials expect to impact 75,000 housing units, and each will have a cap of $20,000 in aid. But this initiative has not yet begun, because the agency allegedly has just started the competitive bidding process for contractors, and the contracts have not been awarded. Department of Housing spokeswoman Leticia Jover said they hope to have the program “active” by the end of December or early January.

In addition to the programs managed by the island’s government, FEMA manages some initiatives aimed at providing temporary shelter to the people while the work to restore or rebuild impacted structures is completed. The “blue roof” program is one of those initiatives. Led by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, 14,779 roof tarps were installed last month around Puerto Rico.

In addition, the transitory housing program is available. For this program, people displaced by the hurricane can qualify to stay in hotels or motels in Puerto Rico or other parts of the United States. Currently, the island lacks sufficient available rooms, so many of the people who have applied for this help are in other U.S. jurisdictions.

At the end of November, FEMA data said there were 1,758 family units (equivalent to 4,597 people) mainly housed in Puerto Rico, Florida, Texas, Massachusetts, and New York.

Alejandro de la Campa, FEMA’s Caribbean Area Division Director, also pointed out that the federal agency provides resources to rent vacant homes that allow for temporary relocation, and identifies and repairs multi-family properties for people impacted by the hurricane. In addition, FEMA provides financial assistance to meet housing needs. De la Campa said that people who have available properties that can be used for these purposes can contact FEMA at 202-705-9140.

“It’s all voluntary. One cannot force a person to relocate. It is a challenge that we always have because, when we are talking about a place where grandparents lived, the family lived there, we know that culturally it’s a challenge. We try to work with the government of Puerto Rico, we try to make people understand that it is the most effective way to be able to live in a safer, quieter place that is built to code,” De la Campa said.

Photo by Joel Cintrón Arbasetti | Centro de Periodismo Investigativo

One of the classrooms used as a shelter at Rubén Rodríguez Figueroa in Naranjito. The photo is from the second week after hurricane María.

Dignified Housing Is a Human Rights Issue

Liza Gallardo, executive director of Amnesty International in Puerto Rico, explained that addressing the housing needs of people displaced by a natural disaster is a long-term process. The overall goal is to identify a healthy, safe and dignified place.

The efforts to meet this goal, Gallardo noted, must meet the following criteria: include active participation of those affected by the decision-making; avoid the separation of the family and destruction of the community’s “social thread;” and take into account local economies so that relocated people can have the means to make a living.

Photo courtesy of Liza Gallardo

Liza Gallardo

“The state can provide a home, but it is not adequate if you cannot work nearby, if you can not take your children to school. It won’t work without a sewage system. Your home is not adequate if you don’t have electrical power. These are other elements that allow your home to be a dignified home,” Gallardo said.

“There is an important point. And it’s that the state needs to be cautious in not turning this construction process into an opportunity for some people to get rich. The priority here must be to make this reconstruction take human rights into account,” she added.


English Version by Julio Ricardo Varela | Latino USA

This story was made possible by the Futuro Media Group as part of a collaboration supported by the Ford Foundation.

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