NEW BEDFORD — Federal housing assistance ended Wednesday for three families from Puerto Rico who came to the SouthCoast after Hurricane Maria.
They were among 60 families statewide whose shelter aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency ended this week, generally because FEMA has deemed their homes in Puerto Rico habitable, according to Darlene Spencer, director of family support initiatives for the United Way of Greater New Bedford.
Without the aid, they had to leave FEMA-sponsored motel rooms.
Spencer said she was able to get one local family an extension with help from the American Red Cross. Another moved into an apartment in Fall River, and the third moved into a friend's home temporarily and plans to return to Puerto Rico.
"Nobody is on the street," she said.
The United Way is coordinating the local response. As of Wednesday, the group had conducted intakes with 213 families, consisting of 310 adults and 251 children, she said.
FEMA housing assistance has been extended until March 20 for those whose aid has not been terminated. No one knows whether FEMA will give another extension beyond that time, but local service providers have to operate as if no extension is coming, Spencer said. That means finding a more stable housing situation is priority No. 1.
"The issue is ... there's only so much housing stock," she said.
She said the New Bedford Housing Authority has placed at least eight people into public housing, but it's unlikely many more will get into public housing before March 20.
Other participants in Spencer's weekly meeting for organizations helping Hurricane Maria evacuees said some of the newcomers have been able to get jobs but do not have reliable transportation. Lack if English language skills has been a barrier for some. And in some cases, the evacuees have professional licenses at home in nursing or another field, but they can't get licensed in Massachusetts without better language skills or additional schooling.
One hundred forty-eight evacuee children and teens are enrolled in the New Bedford public schools, Spencer said. Another 51 previously enrolled but have withdrawn.
Jariel Vergne, wraparound manager for the New Bedford schools, said that working with students from Puerto Rico has led the district to deepen, for all new students, the information that wraparound coordinators gather from families to give to teachers. They ask about social and emotional issues, what the family's previous experience with school was like, personal strengths of the student, academics and more.
"This actually has created some positive changes for our families," he said.
Spencer said the United Way is doing four or five new intakes each week with evacuees. Although intakes have slowed, the work necessary to help them has not, she said.