(This article written by Carol Fouke-Mpoyo about Pennsylvania Southeast Conference appeared in UCC News on November 14, 2017.)
The UCC’s Pennsylvania Southeast Conference (PSEC) is the lead voluntary agency in a public-private collaboration that is welcoming hundreds of Puerto Rican families fleeing dire post-Maria conditions on the island and seeking refuge in and around Philadelphia.
Their “Philadelphia Project” has been embraced by the conference as an opportunity to live the UCC’s Three Great Loves – especially the love of neighbor.
There are echoes of the biblical story of the “Good Samaritan” in this effort. There also are examples of how a seemingly small contribution can be the key to a person’s future well-being.
To respond to Puerto Rican hurricane survivors’ needs, the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management (OEM), in cooperation with Pennsylvania state agencies and the Southeast Pennsylvania Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (SEPA VOAD), opened a Disaster Assistance Services Center.
The PSEC, which is a SEPA VOAD member, has established an assistance fund, which it has made available to the center’s caseworkers to help meet the hurricane survivors’ otherwise unmet needs.
For example, $99 for a security deposit was all one hurricane survivor needed to get into long-term housing in Philadelphia. For others, as little as $35 pays the fee to replace a lost Social Security card or to obtain a Pennsylvania photo ID – needed to apply for rental assistance with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).
To date, $2,650 in assistance from the PSEC fund has used in part to provide housing to seven people for a total of 25 nights, and another $400 approved for other sorts of expenses, said PSEC Disaster Coordinator Karl Jones.
The fund is supported by the conference, a UCC Disaster Ministries solidarity grant, and contributions from churches, including a generous gift from Faith Reformed UCC in Landingville, Pa.
“No one is sending these people here. They came because things are so bad in Puerto Rico they decided they had to get out,” Jones said. “Many who are coming lost everything to the hurricane. They managed to scrape together funds for a one-way ticket, but are showing up with little more than the clothes on their back.”
Some are squeezing in with relatives or friends, at least for a few weeks. Others have come without any contacts or means of assistance, choosing Philadelphia because of its sizeable population of people of Puerto Rican descent.
Indeed, some have ended up living in the street, and some of those were beaten and robbed.
The UCC’s Karl Jones is on the SEPA VOAD Council. “The fact that we can do what we are doing with Philadelphia OEM is because we have solid relationships already,” he said.
Lynn Fisher, Community Preparedness Program Manager at the Philadelphia OEM, said, “We got to the homeless in a short time with housing and food assistance.”
Almost one thousand Puerto Ricans who self-evacuated after Hurricane Maria have come to the Disaster Assistance Resource Center in its first five weeks. All of them need a “safe space” away from the destruction to consider their next steps, whether it’s to resettle to the mainland or return to Puerto Rico once essential services are restored.
Caseworkers are helping them get FEMA rental assistance, emergency food stamps, career services, Medicaid, health evaluation and referral and cash assistance for families with children.
“FEMA is the main player, but it cannot meet every need,” Jones said, adding that it can take several weeks for applicants to receive federal assistance. “The help of the faith-based and community-based organizations is necessary to fill the gaps.”
For example, Airbnb, a national VOAD partner, offered spaces to house some people for the first couple of weeks, but now they are starting to pull them back. “On Friday I approved some funding for temporary housing for a family that had been staying in one of those situations but now had to leave,” Jones said.
The conference has tasked the UCC’s Philadelphia Association with recruiting volunteers to be available to drive newcomers to appointments and help them learn their way around town, if and when the need arises. The Rev. Michael Caine of Philadelphia’s Old First UCC is coordinating.
Old First UCC has also offered the use of an apartment it owns to temporarily shelter an evacuee family. “We are waiting for a caseworker to show up with a family,” Caine said. “There are people from church making sure that the place is ready to go.”
“How the UCC has stepped in is really wonderful,” Fisher said. “It’s really nice to know that if something happens we have this money not attached to the state or FEMA that we can use to just help people. The money helps us untie our hands and it’s really wonderful.”
“I am really proud of everyone involved,” said UCC Disaster Ministries Executive Zach Wolgemuth. “This is a great example of local, conference and national church collaborating to meet a unique need. Through our connections with VOAD and Emergency Management, the work is being coordinated in a way that leverages resources and meets the needs of the most vulnerable.”