New Bedford agencies struggle to aid 300 who fled Puerto Rico

NEW BEDFORD — At least 297 people have relocated to New Bedford from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria, and finding housing is the biggest problem they face, according to service providers in the community.

As of Tuesday, the United Way of Greater New Bedford had conducted intakes with 86 families, including some who are single or elderly and 97 children, according to Darlene Spencer, the United Way’s director of family support initiatives.

Her agency is coordinating the local aid effort. It averages five or six relocation intakes a day, on top of its normal load.

“We’re very, very busy,” she said.

Spencer said her staff have been told that the emergency housing vouchers given to relocating families last through Jan. 14.

The New Bedford Housing Authority has seen 256 people from Puerto Rico looking for 113 units of housing, Executive Director Steven A. Beauregard said Wednesday. Another 41 people seeking help have been documented at other agencies. That totals 297 people, and providers say others are staying with family and may not have sought help.

Before Hurricane Maria, the Housing Authority was taking five or six applications a day; now, they’re taking 17 to 20, he said.

It’s not just the influx of people from Puerto Rico driving the trend, Beauregard said. His agency is seeing “a ton” of people applying for housing who are not relocating from Puerto Rico — substantially more than at his time of year in previous years.

“We’ve worked every Saturday since Sept. 20th. We’re getting killed,” he said.

Beauregard said he could not explain the increase. People may be trying to apply before relocators get in line first, but he doesn’t really know, he said.

His office has been helping relocators fill out Federal Emergency Management Agency aid applications — 56 applications as of Wednesday — and the staff is overwhelmed, he said. He brought in two employees from a temp agency to act as receptionists.

Beauregard said a few people have come without a legitimate housing claim. One family came with a Section 8 voucher, but their housing in Puerto Rico is fine, he said. The housing authority in Puerto Rico is still paying the landlord, and the federal government will not allow two landlords to get paid with a single Section 8 voucher.

In that case, the family should have stayed and given a 30-day notice to the landlord, he said.

“And so now they’re here, and they’re stuck,” he said.

In the New Bedford public schools, 95 new students have registered, Registrar Julie Mador said Wednesday at a service coordination meeting for city offices and nonprofits working with Puerto Rican newcomers.

Approximately six high school seniors have arrived with no school transcripts, she said. They have been out of school for two months, and some are coming without their parents.

“They came here to live with a family member because they’re so concerned. They want them to graduate,” she said.

The School Department doesn’t know what the state will do, or recommend, with regard to whether the students can graduate, she said. Although the district can offer the MCAS test, which is required for graduation, most of the students speak little English.

“All the students in New Bedford have been a Level 1 or Level 2, which means zero English,” she said.

A benefit for the Unidos Para Familias (United for Families) Fund, established at the Community Foundation to aid people fleeing Maria’s aftermath, is scheduled for Dec. 16 with music, dancing, a buffet and cash bar at the GiftsToGive Philanthropy Factory. For tickets, visit www.giftstogive.org/december16/ or call 508-717-8715.

Follow Jennette Barnes on Twitter @jbarnesnews.