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Catholic Charities Is Helping Puerto Rican Evacuees Find New Homes in Tampa Bay

When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico last September, Julio Ildefonso and his mother watched as their wooden home in Bayamón was blown away.

"It was a real drastic thing that happened to us," Ildefonso said, holding back tears. "When everything finished, I just looked at my mom and I said, 'What are we going to do now?'"

Vazquez and his 65-year-old mother Mariana are now living in a one-bedroom motel room near Busch Gardens. The room is paid for by the Diocese of St. Petersburg's Catholic Charities, and with their help, he hopes to be able to move into an apartment or house in the near future.

"To have our own place means everything to us, because we don't want to be jumping from side to side, not knowing what's going to be happening the next day," he said. "Hopefully soon, we'll be moving into our new house. Y'all can't see me, but I have a big smile on my face, because my mom is going to be fine."

Hillsborough County recently put Catholic Charities in charge of a nearly $300,000 Emergency Solutions Grant. The grant is given to local governments by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Through the grant, Catholic Charities is providing motel rooms, budget counseling and job placement to families that fled Hurricane Maria to Tampa Bay.

Most importantly, said Disaster Services Coordinator Melissa Brass, the grant allows them to help with down payments and rent to begin transitioning people into more stable living.

"It can cost anywhere from $1,500 to up to $5,000 to move into somewhere once you start counting up all those utility deposits and everything, so that's a lot to come up with," Brass said.

For Hurricane Maria evacuees like Lillian Vasquez, the up-front cost of moving into an apartment or house has been a big hurdle. She fled Carolina, Puerto Rico in November with her two young children.  Since then, she's been able to find work at Hillsborough Community College, but not a home.

Vasquez said she's lived out of motels and even a U-Haul because she hasn’t been able to save up enough for something more stable.

"The most difficult part is watching my children with the small things that they have in that crowded room, and having to have it in the U-Haul and the hotel, just dragging all this little bit of their property around," Vasquez said through her case manager and translator.

Catholic Charities has already been able to find permanent housing for four households. They are providing 33 more with a number of other transitional services. According to FEMA, more than 500 displaced Puerto Rican families who fled to Florida are still without permanent housing.

Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.
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