Lorain responds to needs of Puerto Rican newcomers six months after Maria

March 19, 2018 GMT

Lorain responds to needs of Puerto Rican newcomers six months after Maria

LORAIN, Ohio -- More than 200 families, 501 people, have moved to Lorain to escape the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria and a group of governmental, social welfare, religious and educational organizations are working to make the transition as painless as possible.

Victor Leandry, president of El Centro de Servicios Sociales, said the newcomers need housing, jobs and bilingual education. The good news that through inter-agency cooperation, they are getting what they need.

“This was a whole new wave of newcomers that came to the city quite unexpectedly,” said Victor Leandry, executive director of the social services group at a news conference at the agency. “With the help of many people and organizations, their needs are being met.”

Three women told their stories of hardship in Puerto Rico and how they are faring in Lorain.

Naomy Morales lost everything when Hurricane Maria destroyed the house that she and her mother shared. She moved to Lorain in December. She is currently taking English lessons at El Centro.

“I am living with an aunt and trying to get medical help for my autistic child,” she said through a translator. “It is hard to find a job and housing with no transportation.”

Stephanie Rivera, 26, moved to Lorain last Thursday and faces the same problem of lack of transportation. She said electrical problems destroyed every appliance in her family’s home, causing hardship.

Carmen Santiago has been in Lorain for 18 months and has been helping families move here. She has allowed two families to share her home and is helping them find work and homes of their own.

El Centro is often the first stop for the new residents who left the island after the hurricane wreaked havoc six months ago. The group operates a food pantry, English classes, assistance with finding housing and a job. Perhaps the biggest role it plays is acting as a clearinghouse to get people the help they need from other agencies.

A major problem in the city is the lack of transportation. Lorain has very limited bus service in the city and no connecting service to Elyria, Cleveland.

“That is the hardest part,” said Suzette Sanchez, who move to Lorain from Puerto Rico 18 months ago and now works as a translator for El Centro. “People need jobs, but they also need a way to get to those jobs. The bus schedule in Lorain makes that impossible, so they have to figure out another way to get around.”

She said housing is also difficult. Most of the new residents stay with family members when they first arrive, but moving into their own apartment is difficult.

“Landlords don’t use the same credit history companies as they do in Puerto Rico,” she said. “So essentially, people start from scratch. The first thing they want to see is a driver’s license. New people don’t have one and in order to get one they have to go Elyria which is hard because there are no buses.”

Sanchez said it’s possible to work through the red tape but it takes time and patience. The problem is aggravated when people don’t speak English.

“It can be done,” she said. “When I came here 18 months ago I could not speak English. I learned and now I help people who come here after me.”

El Centro produces a brochure with tells people where they can find help for everything from employment to housing to education.

Lorain County Commissioner Matt Lundy said the commissioners have been working with El Centro, Lorain County Community College, churches, state and federal agencies to help the newcomers get what they need. He said Ohioans need some education as well.

“I was horrified when I was at the State Legislature in Columbus talking about this and people, including some politicians, would say things like the people from Puerto Rico need to get documentation to be here,” he said. “People did not realize Puerto Ricans were American citizens. I was surprised how often I had to explain that simple fact.”

They announced two events for Puerto Rican people to help them get the help they need. Representatives from numerous public agencies, including hospitals and libraries, will gather at Sacred Heart Chapel, 4301 Pearl Road, Lorain, starting at 4 p.m. on April 8 for the educational sessions. Activities will be provided for the children.

On April 19, the Cleveland Clinic will host a health fair from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Cleveland Clinic Lorain Family Health Center, 5700 Cooper Foster Park Road, Lorain. They will offer free screenings and health information.