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Housing issues affect everyone in Connecticut, from those who are searching for a safe place to live, to those who may find it increasingly difficult to afford a place they already call home.WNPR is covering Connecticut's housing and homelessness issues in a series that examines how residents are handling the challenges they face. We look at the trends that matter most right now, and tell stories that help bring the issues to light.

State Aid On The Way For Hurricane Maria Evacuees In Connecticut

Ryan Caron King
Connecticut Public Radio
A budget adjustment bill for fiscal year 2019 signed by Governor Dannel Malloy distributes $1.5 million through three state departments to Connecticut towns and programs dedicated to assisting evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The state of Connecticut has set aside $1.5 million to meet the needs of Puerto Rican evacuees and the Connecticut municipalities that took them in for the current fiscal year.

The money will be handed out to three state departments: $600,000 going to housing, $500,000 to social services, and $400,000 to education.

Half of the $600,000 that’s heading for the Department of Housing is ticketed for “general diversion.” Here is an application of diversion that the state’s already done: families haven’t had access to housing vouchers, so area nonprofits contracted by the state have used diversionary tactics to exhaust temporary solutions, like living with family members that already have a place.

“Diversion has been used very successfully here to keep folks out of homelessness to ensure that they are getting settled in their new home of Connecticut,” said Evonne Klein, the state’s housing commissioner.

Select families will receive money from a pool of $250,000 for first month’s rent and security deposit, while the rest of the department’s money goes to case management.

The state has decided that the Department of Social Services money will go to what it called “Human Resource Development-Hispanic Programs.” One of those entities that administers aid to evacuees is Junta for Progressive Action, a New Haven nonprofit. It’ll get $90,000 from the state to provide social services to evacuees that turn up at its office with nowhere else to go.

“We’re the ones that are trying to find employment, trying to find the housing, getting kids to be registered for school, getting them in after school programs, dealing with social/emotional—the trauma,” said Paola Serrecchia, Junta’s director of advocacy and community engagement.

The Department of Education will distribute its $400,000 allocation to the six school districts that housed the most student evacuees. The state said it identified in a December survey that local public schools faced a big problem related to a shortage of bilingual education specialists, so the $400,000 is meant to address that need.

Bob Brenker, the Waterbury school district’s chief operating officer, said bilingual education specialists are needed because many of the new students have English language learning needs and classroom space is tight.

“We would like to have more so we can cut the classroom sizes where possible,” Brenker said.

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Hurricane evacuees and volunteers eat a dinner celebrating the work of a local relief center on March 8, 2018.

At one point, Waterbury had 325 new students from Puerto Rico enrolled in its public schools — the second most of all districts after Hartford.

“Everytime we get an additional grant, we’re very grateful to the state for what they provide,” Brenker said. “It does help. Does it ever sufficiently provide funding for every program we would like? No. But it does help.”

When taking a look at how that money might be divided up, it doesn’t seem like the districts are getting that much. The Department of Education said it’s yet to decide exactly how it will distribute the $400,000. It might be prorated, meaning each district would receive an amount proportional to the number of students it took in or the state says it may divide the money evenly among the six. If it’s divided up evenly, that would be about $67,000 to each district. That’s one, maybe two extra teachers.

Nancy Serra, superintendent of New Britain Public Schools, said that allocation doesn’t begin to address the bilingual education shortage in her district that’s proliferated since 269 student evacuees came to the city—the third most in the state.

“I’ll be appreciative of anything that I get, but it doesn’t really scratch the surface of what our needs are in the district,” Serra said.

Serra’s disposition is representative of the cries coming from leaders in the local Puerto Rican community -- it’s a hearty ‘thank you for the help, but we need more to help out these families.’

Serrecchia’s appreciative of the $90,000 that Junta is getting because it ran into a deficit as a result of helping evacuees. That came after already having funding cut from the state last year.

But when she pondered this state aid overall, Serrecchia said more money is needed for evacuees and that should come from the federal government to deal with the affordable housing dilemma.

“There is no long-term sustainable housing,” Serrecchia said. “There is no vouchers for permanent housing and that is really what we need right now.”

A portion of the Department of Housing allocation was easy for Ingrid Alvarez-DiMarzo from the Connecticut Hispanic Federation to poke at -- $50,000 of the $600,000 will go to local nonprofits that do case management. She said that's not nearly enough to account for other needs that in her opinion should be covered in case management.

“50K will not be enough to deal with the long-term mental health trauma of not just U.S. citizen children in our school systems, but their parents,” Alvarez-DiMarzo.

It’s clear that this money will help cover some costs for the upcoming fiscal year, but it’s also clear that it won’t do much for the long-term sustainability of some of Connecticut’s newest residents — evacuees from Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

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