Worcester, Mass., looking to help house hurricane victims
The Worcester City Council has asked the city administration to identify affordable housing that might exist for people resettling here from hurricane-battered Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
District 4 Councilor Sarai Rivera, lead sponsor of the order, said people from those islands are looking to get away from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria but do not have a place to live.
She said while news coverage of what is happening in Puerto Rico and the Virgin islands is diminishing, the crisis there continues.
With Worcester's sizable Puerto Rican population — believed to be the 19th largest per capita in the country — Rivera said a number of people from the island are coming here to connect with family members.
But because of the lack of affordable housing, she said they have been forced to double up in homes of family members and friends.
"These are U.S. citizens; they don't want to pick up and leave their homes but their area is uninhabitable," Rivera said at Tuesday night's meeting. "Now we're in survival mode. There is no inventory of affordable housing and we need to open up that conversation so we can help these people."
The councilor praised the efforts of City Manager Edward M. Augustus Jr. and Mayor Joseph M. Petty who have been working with the city's Latino community to mobilize relief efforts and provide assistance to people resettling here. But she said the key is finding an affordable place where they can live.
Councilor-at-Large Khrystian E. King said families from the islands are desperately seeking normalcy after losing everything.
He said he would like to see the city partner with neighboring communities in anticipation of the resettlement of many families to this area.
"Seeing folks come together is powerful and meaningful," King said. "When it comes to affordable housing, I agree we have to do more, but we also need to have the surrounding communities do more as well."
Roberto Diaz, director of institutional advancement at CENTRO Inc., said "hundreds of families" could be making their way to Worcester.
He said his agency has been processing and assisting 40 families during the past two weeks. He said nine families alone were seen on Tuesday morning and another 10 are expected to be seen before Friday.
Meanwhile, he said the public schools have registered more than 70 children who have resettled here from Puerto Rico.
"As impressive as the statistics are, these numbers are expected to grow dramatically," Diaz said. "There's very little hope of helping families achieve self-sufficiency if they do not have stable housing. Our community must be properly prepared to meet this challenge. We have a moral obligation to assist these families."
Steven Teasdale, director of the Main South Community Development Corp, said his agency has really been affected by the disaster in Puerto Rico.
He said many of his staff have family members living there and they have not heard from them. Many of the tenants in his agency's properties are also still anxiously waiting to hear from family members.
"This has hit home with our agency and we were delighted to see the mayor and city manager try and coordinate the city's efforts among social service agencies in Worcester to better address the needs of families coming to Worcester from Puerto Rico," Teasdale said. "We can provide housing opportunities by hosting these families with families that we already provide housing to.
"We need to deal with HUD (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development) and make sure that we can double up and keep people in those units until they are able to return to their own home and go back to start their lives over again," he added.
He said it is reassuring to know that Worcester as a community cares enough to take these steps to help these people while the response from the White House has been "anything but sympathetic and frankly embarrassing to American citizens."