January 9, 2018

UPDATED: Catholic Charities staff members work to assist evacuees from Puerto Rico

By Rebecca Drake

Staff member Natanael Velez (left) poses in his office with a family of Puerto Rican evacuees being assisted by the Catholic Charities Agency of the Springfield Diocese. (IObserve photos/courtesy of Catholic Charities)


SPRINGFIELD – Natanael Velez, the newest full-time staff member at the local Catholic Charities Agency, has a lot of “family time” on his hands these days.

With a caseload of 17 Puerto Rican families recently evacuated from their hurricane-ravaged homes, Velez is focused on finding housing for several families whose temporary shelter assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will run out on Jan. 13. Presently, more than 200 families evacuated from Puerto Rico are staying in hotels in the Greater Springfield Area. The 10 hotels housing evacuees are located in Westfield, West Springfield, Holyoke, Northampton and Chicopee.

Hurricane Maria, the 10th most intense Atlantic storm on record, slammed into the island of Puerto Rico in September. By December, 30 percent of the residents were still without power.

“Many of these families came in with very little, no jobs, or income,” Velez told iObserve. “As we progress with finding low-income housing, we stumble into a wall because there is a waiting list that can take up to a year.”

Catholic Charities worker Natanael Velez assists a young Puerto Rican mother with paperwork.

“Some families may be eligible for extended funding from FEMA, but that is not known or set in stone,” he said. “FEMA will be determining who is eligible for more funding after they visit their homes (in Puerto Rico) and determine whether they are ‘habitable.’ According to some of my clients, their houses were deemed habitable because no physical damage was done to their house; however, is living without running water or electricity habitable?”

In addition to the need for housing, evacuees staying in hotels face challenges securing another basic necessity: food. Since they are not able to cook in hotel rooms, and most have no transportation, local parishes and the Catholic Charities Agency of the Springfield Diocese are working on this need as well.

Catholic Charities executive director Kathryn Buckley-Brawner told iObserve that the agency has allocated a $5,000 grant, garnered from the annual Lenten Rice Bowl collection, to help provide prepared foods for the families by bringing the food to the hotels or transporting families to places where they can get a hot prepared meal. Although they are eligible for food stamps, she explained, they cannot use the food stamps to purchase food that has already been cooked.

Buckley-Brawner emphasized that the families are not refugees, but are internally displaced U.S. citizens. “They also are very resourceful,” she added.

In spite of the hardships these families have faced, Velez said he is inspired by their perseverance and support for each other. “I remember working with two families specifically, these two households, that clearly had either been friends since before the tragedy or they had been bound to friendship over the struggle.

“What was so amazing was seeing the resilience that these two families had shown,” he said. “While they expressed sadness, they also expressed joy and a spirit to keep on moving forward.”

Velez, who recently received a bachelor of social work degree from Western New England University, said he believes that people of all faiths – or no faith – are motivated to help those in need by simple human decency.

“As fellow humans, we must take care of one another, to understand, to be emphatic, to accept individuals’ pain and struggle,” he said. “I think that taking care of each other through our vulnerable stages fulfills spirituality.

“Part of the human experience is needing to have social interaction,” Velez said. “We want to connect, and by having the privilege of working with these families I fulfill my need to connect and ‘bear ye one another’s burden,’” he said, in reference to Galatians 6:2: “Bear one another’s burdens, and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.”

Asked how people can help the families staying in the local hotels, Buckley-Brawner said, “Parishes can reach out to families near them. Check on them. See if they have sufficient clothing and sufficient food.”    

Buckley-Brawner also acknowledged the assistance being provided by secular agencies.

“We applaud the good work of the Family Resource Centers in our area who are the lead agencies in this major endeavor to rapidly assist these families,” she said. “We are pleased to contribute our resources to help them in this effort.”