Beckoned by family, hurricane victims are looking for jobs and place to live


As Hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico braces for a long and painful recovery, attention is turning toward welcoming and resettling islanders compelled to leave. And not a moment too soon. Community groups are already witnessing a surge of newcomers from the island.

“They’re coming in here every day. We are overwhelmed,” said Romanita Vargas, the executive director of the Spanish American Committee, the oldest social service agency in Cleveland’s Hispanic community.

As of Monday, October 30, her non-profit agency on the near west side had been visited by members of 64 families recently arrived from Puerto Rico, she said. Some were in need of medical attention. Many asked about jobs. Most all were in need of housing.

“No one has a down payment,” she added. “These people have no coats, no furniture, nothing.”

On September 20, Hurricane Maria roared through the U.S. commonwealth, destroying thousands of homes and business and making some communities uninhabitable. Federal help has been slow to arrive and much of Puerto Rico remains without running water or electricity.

Many expected a local impact. Between Cleveland and Lorain, Northeast Ohio is home to one of the largest Puerto Rican communities in the mainland United Sates. Community leaders assumed many Puerto Ricans would come here seeking a respite and maybe to start new lives. But the influx has arrived sooner than expected.

Vargas said Puerto Ricans in Northeast Ohio have been telling family members in distress in Puerto Rico to try and fly out. Once they make it to Cleveland, they are being accommodated by relatives who themselves may have small homes and limited resources.

Vargas said she knows of a family of 10 living in a basement with three dogs.

Many come seeking guidance at the offices of the Spanish American Committee at West 44th Street and Lorain Avenue, often the first stop for Spanish-speaking residents in crisis.

“We don’t have the resources to deal with this,” Vargas said.

Through a CLE4PR campaign administered by The Cleveland Foundation, area residents, businesses and institutions have contributed about $145,000 to help hurricane victims in Puerto Rico as of October 30. But that money is earmarked for relief efforts on the island, not for helping Puerto Ricans in Cleveland, Vargas noted.

Jose Feliciano, president of the Hispanic Roundtable, the leadership group in the region’s Hispanic community, said Cleveland has an opportunity to add badly needed population while helping fellow Americans in distress.

“There has to be a comprehensive approach,” one that includes the city’s world class hospitals, he said.

Representatives of Cuyahoga Community College and Global Cleveland plan to meet with Vargas and her team to discuss strategies for welcoming Hurricane victims and for steering them toward housing, schools and jobs.

“We know that fellow Americans are hurting and we intend to help them,” said Joe Cimperman, the president of Global Cleveland. “This is what Cleveland does best, we rally to help our brothers and sisters in need.”