NEW BEDFORD — Families fleeing hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico are beginning to arrive in New Bedford, and some need housing, according Steven Beauregard, director of the New Bedford Housing Authority.
Two adult siblings and their families took shelter with their brother, and 18 people were living in the two-bedroom apartment until they sought help, he said.
“We have a family of eight right now that have been put in a hotel since last Wednesday, and that’s getting expensive,” Beauregard said.
Private donors and the local group United New Bedford have been paying for the rooms, he said. (United New Bedford was founded by Edwin and Luz Cartagena; he is running for City Council in Ward 2.)
Beauregard has thought about opening a shelter or some kind of public housing for people coming from Puerto Rico, but getting the necessary approvals would be a Herculean task, he said.
To his knowledge, only 10 or 15 people have arrived in the city so far, but more are likely to come. Reports of people seeking refuge from the devastation have surfaced in other communities, notably Holyoke, which has the highest proportion of Puerto Ricans of any city in the 50 states.
At an Oct. 9 walk in support of Puerto Rico that drew about 300 people, Mayor Jon Mitchell said 15 children from Puerto Rico had been placed into the New Bedford schools in the previous week.
“I think every city in America should be doing what we’re doing in New Bedford,” he said.
Hurricane Maria caused disaster-level damage and left most of the island without electricity. On Thursday, three weeks after the storm hit, ABC News reported that only 16 percent of residents had power. The death toll had risen to 45.
Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens and can move freely between the island and the continental United States, so those with family in New Bedford may come to join them. City offices, nonprofits, and religious groups met Oct. 10 to begin planning how to handle more people.
“We anticipate over the next month or two that there’s going to be a big influx,” Beauregard said.
Jonathan Carvalho, a spokesman for the mayor, said the meeting was convened to ensure that the appropriate agencies in health, education, and social services had an open line of communication regarding arrivals. Among the participants were the Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, United Way of Greater New Bedford, Catholic Social Services, PACE, New Bedford Public Schools, New Bedford Housing Authority, and the Inter-Church Council.
They talked about enrolling children in school, making sure their immunizations are up to date, and other issues, Carvalho said.
Darlene Spencer, director of family support initiatives for the United Way, said the United Way has been designated as the point of coordination for Puerto Ricans coming to New Bedford. The group can help people find help, but right now, very little housing is available.
“At this point, I’m going to be honest, the housing situation has not been resolved,” she said.
The United Way has also received conflicting information about whether people will be eligible for various public benefits. The effort is still in the early stages, she said.
Based on its funding, the United Way mainly has the capacity to help people with minor children, but other adults can receive referrals, she said. Puerto Ricans arriving in the city can visit the United Way office at the DeMello International Center, 128 Union St., third floor. Visitors must go to the security desk in the first-floor lobby.
United Way hours are 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, and Spanish-speaking staff are available, she said.
Follow Jennette Barnes on Twitter @jbarnesnews.