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Out Of Service? State No Longer Recommends Puerto Rican Evacuees Dial 211

earthquake puerto rico
Carlos Giusti
Associated Press
A Puerto Rican flag was placed in the rubble of the Ely Mer Mar hardware store, which partially collapsed after an earthquake struck Guanica, Puerto Rico, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

Connecticut has released more funding to help evacuees from Puerto Rico -- but the state isn’t recommending that people call 211 to connect with the aid.

The state is making $75,000 available to help evacuees with housing costs. It comes after a recent string of earthquakes on the island that led to an uptick in people coming to Connecticut.

But instead of being prompted to call 211 to get access, those interested are being told to reach out directly to four Connecticut nonprofits that have close ties to the local Hispanic community.

The 211 toll-free number is supposed to act as a single integrated source for information about community services, crisis intervention and referrals to health and human services.

Seila Mosquera-Bruno, Connecticut’s housing commissioner, was asked about 211 at a news conference announcing the grant last month. 

“That’s why we have identified local organizations -- San Juan Center, Alpha in Bridgeport, Casa Otonal in New Haven -- and we will try to do that, so it will not go through 211,” she told reporters.

The state’s Department of Housing subsequently clarified to Connecticut Public Radio in an email that people aren’t being directed to 211 for this grant because of issues that arose with the state’s response to Hurricane Maria evacuees.

Credit Frankie Graziano / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Seila Mosquera-Bruno, Connecticut's housing commissioner

At the news conference where the grant was introduced, state Rep. Geraldo Reyes spoke of the frustration people had with using 211 as a primary entry point to service when the hurricane forced people off the island in 2017.

“Many people have complained about the slow response or the lack of proper response, and I think this time, we’re better prepared,” Reyes said. 

After Maria, as hundreds of people relocated to Connecticut, state cash was set aside for survivors to collect up to $5,000 in disaster assistance per family. That money was supposed to be disbursed by July 1, 2019. But with about 80 days to go before the funding reverted to the state, the Connecticut Coalition to End Homelessness told Connecticut Public Radio that nearly half of the appropriated funds remained unclaimed. 

Richard Cho, executive director of CCEH, pointed to the state’s reliance on the 211 as one of the reasons it took so long for the money to be spent down. He said he wanted the state to supplement 211 by formalizing relationships with community leaders as a way to reach out.

Richard Porth, CEO of The United Way of Connecticut, defended the 211 system at a July 2019 news conference, saying it fielded more than 5,000 calls and coordinated disaster case management when evacuees were about to lose the FEMA aid that kept them in local hotels. 

The housing situation was exacerbated by the already long waiting lists for federal housing assistance.

After Maria, none of Connecticut’s 7,000 federal housing vouchers were available to the displaced. One person told Connecticut Public Radio at the time that he was put on a waiting list with 700 others. 

Credit Ryan Caron King / Connecticut Public Radio
Connecticut Public Radio
Passengers from a direct flight from Bradley International Airport wait to pick up their checked baggage -- much of it cardboard boxes full of supplies -- in the San Juan airport on Oct. 16, 2017.

The state hopes the new strategy for this latest wave of evacuees will get money out faster to people who need it.

The funds to help people displaced by the earthquakes will be managed by the San Juan Center, a nonprofit organization based in Hartford. It’ll then work with three other local nonprofits -- Casa Otonal, Alpha Community Services YMCA in Bridgeport, and the Hispanic Coalition of Greater Waterbury. 

Evacuees can use the money for a security deposit and first month’s rent.

“We were glad to see the funding had been provided for recent evacuees,” said United Way’s Porth, “but 211 hasn’t been involved in the planning or implementation for this.”

The state said evacuees can still call 211 if they need housing help -- they’ll just be directed to the four nonprofits involved with the grant.

Frankie Graziano is the host of The Wheelhouse, focusing on how local and national politics impact the people of Connecticut.

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