(TNS) — Let’s say you have secured a plane ticket out of Puerto Rico and are arriving at Bradley International Airport with little more than the clothes on your back. Now what?
Connecticut is preparing for as many as 12,000 new residents who have been uprooted from their lives in the Caribbean after Hurricane Maria destroyed homes, damaged schools and wiped out the electrical grid. With Connecticut’s deep ties to Puerto Rico, emergency officials and municipal leaders expect these new arrivals to initially stay with relatives.
For the state, trying to meet their needs starts at the airport: A contingent of helpers, including volunteers and workers from the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross, has been stationed at Bradley’s baggage claim to welcome and assist travelers stepping off JetBlue direct flights from San Juan, said Chief Reginald Freeman, Hartford’s emergency management director and fire chief.
City leaders and organizations have been making their own preparations in Hartford. On Thursday, they described some of the current resources available to people who choose to resettle in the capital city.
Hartford Public Schools
School-aged children and teenagers who move to Hartford will need to enroll in school.
Hartford Public Schools’ Welcome Center, located in the first-floor lobby at 960 Main Street in downtown, is the first stop for new students. They are assessed on a variety of fronts — academically, whether they have immunization records or need mental health counseling in the hurricane’s aftermath, for instance. School uniforms and footwear are on hand, and the center is stocking up on winter clothing, Superintendent Leslie Torres-Rodriguez said.
So far, the city school system has enrolled 88 new students from hurricane-ravaged areas: 78 from Puerto Rico, seven from Florida, two from Saint Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands, and one student from the British Virgin Islands, Torres-Rodriguez said Thursday.
Schools that already have big Puerto Rican populations and bilingual staffers, such as Sanchez Elementary School near Park Street and McDonough Middle School in the city’s South End, have been tapped as “hub” schools that might accept the most students. For weeks, those school communities have been collecting an array of donations, from clothing and backpacks to baby supplies, to help new students and their families.
Relief Center for our Caribbean Friends
The former Two Rivers Magnet High School at 15 Van Dyke Ave. in Hartford is transforming into a temporary help center where displaced people can get assistance from a coalition of volunteers, nonprofits, corporations and local agencies that have banded together for the cause.
Rather than a one-stop shop, the Relief Center for our Caribbean Friends will be more of a “triage” hub where new arrivals can receive guidance on a range of topics, including transportation, health care, job training and English as a second language classes, CREC Deputy Executive Director Sandy Cruz-Serrano said Thursday.
Donated goods, such as school supplies, toiletries and gift cards to buy food and winter clothing, will also be offered. There will be plenty of food at the center, too, organizers said.
The Capitol Region Education Council, a magnet school operator, is leasing the Van Dyke building until February and has donated the space in the meantime. Starting Nov. 1, the center’s hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.
Even though the relief center doesn’t formally open until next week, workers have already helped 35 families who got early word of the services, Cruz-Serrano said.
People who want to volunteer at the center can email Darlene Wolliston at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 860-240-6668. Questions about donations? Email Aura Alvarado at email@example.com or call 860-490-9676.
Hartford Public Library
New arrivals who have settled in Hartford can look to obtain municipal identification cards from the city.
“It’s better for everyone in our community who is looking for a home, looking to get a library card or dealing with any city department, like the police, to have ID," Mayor Luke Bronin has said about the municipal ID program.
People interested in applying for Hartford’s municipal ID card can head to the downtown library at 500 Main St. from 5 to 7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 11 a.m. to 4:30 pm. on Saturdays. Two city library branches — at 744 Park St. and 1250 Albany Ave. — can also accept ID applications from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays.
As part of relief efforts, the Hartford Public Library is accepting donated backpacks with school supplies — or cash to buy them — as well as Spanish-language books, library CEO Bridget Quinn-Carey said.
Community Renewal Team
Community Renewal Team, a community agency that is headquartered in Hartford but has dozens of locations throughout the region, offers aid in areas such as housing, unemployment, early education and senior services.
In recent weeks, CRT has been mobilizing with other organizations to assist new residents who fled Puerto Rico or other hurricane-damaged areas, and so far the agency has served at least 30 people in those relief efforts, CRT President and CEO Lena Rodriguez said Thursday.
Many had basic needs; some were directed toward behavioral health services, she said.
CRT is also providing case management and inviting people in for referrals.
“We can prequalify individuals for food stamps and for other state and federal benefits that are provided through the Department of Social Services,” Rodriguez said. “We want to make sure that families have as smooth a transition as possible coming into the Hartford area, understanding that they have undergone some serious crises.”
City officials say it is difficult to estimate how many new arrivals will eventually settle in Hartford. But they sounded sure of one thing: Long-term housing will be the biggest challenge.
While new arrivals from Puerto Rico are likely staying with relatives who are helping them out, in many cases that might not be a permanent living situation, Bronin said Thursday
“If we see 900 to 1,100 who permanently relocate, the housing issue is going to be significant for us,” Freeman said. People looking for affordable housing in Hartford already deal with a 24-month waiting list.
The city will be seeking more Section 8 housing vouchers from the federal government to try to keep up with demand, said Freeman, who is the city’s point man on Puerto Rico preparedness.
The mayor also reminded people that they can call 211 — a clearinghouse in Connecticut for information on just about any topic, including social services, housing help and how to donate or volunteer.
“There’s much you can do right here at home,” Bronin said.
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