One Year After Maria:
With all services disrupted, this group of workers left shock and personal challenges at home and rushed to help others who lost everything. The 'navigators', providers of services for the homeless in Puerto Rico, faced the learning curve of working the disaster response along with federal and local partners; established effective communications with FEMA, managed emergency shelter grant awards to provide stabilization services and made sure the population they served could remain in housing.
As a social worker, Jetsenia Rodríguez was used to dealing challenges to find housing for with persons with multiple issues, but this was different. Even the shelter at Rio Grande, run by Guarabí Continuum of Care, lacked electricity so connecting with resources available around the island was an ordeal. Cellphone signal was intermittent at best, and she couldn't even check on her own daughter as often as needed since her school, also without power, was only open for half a day and logistics needed to be made for her to be safe. In her own home, appliances and furniture were also a total loss but, working with sheltered survivors Rodriguez realized how minimal her problems were.
Jessie Flores, a case worker who worked in shelters helping families in several municipalities including Ponce, Loiza, Fajardo, Guayama and Juana Diaz, had an extra personal concern. Her husband is a police officer and he was required to work 12 hour shifts seven days a week. Their two young daughters needed care, and they had no power at home. Flores said that working in shelters was the most inspiring and challenging job she had faced and helped her see that despite the inconveniences, and constant shuffling of logistics, her family was OK. Her organization, Projects for Assistance in Transition to Homelessness (PATH) receives Health and Humans Services grants, administered by the Puerto Rico Administration of Mental Health and Anti-Addiction Services.
For Marta Fores, regardless of her 20 years of experience finding resources for the homeless and special needs population, working in the Canóvanas shelter after Maria, -the biggest shelter on the Island- was like putting together a giant puzzle to ensure all necessary pieces were in place to be able to move the survivors into housing. Fores and her team at the LUCHA organization identified a group of elderly survivors who had no resources or support to move back to permanent housing. They dedicated their efforts and personnel, at one-point devoting four full time employees to assist the Canóvanas shelter to surmount all barriers, including offering transportation services for survivors. Fores fondly remembers three of the seniors, relocated to permanent housing at the Rio Grande Housing development, a HUD subsidized property for seniors in Río Grande. Hurricane Maria didn't spare Fores' home completely, she was without power for three months. However, the walls were sturdy so her house became a shelter for two of her sons and other friends that had lost their jobs and houses.
The Puerto Rico Department of Housing coordinated the effort of hundreds of workers who put their lives on hold to work with Continuum of Care service providers and assist the survivors that fared worse than they did. Puerto Rico Se Levanta (Puerto Rico Rises) was the word on the street after the storm. With grit and love for the island, the process to rebuild began.