By Martha Bayne
Photography by Michelle Kanaar
“I thought we were going to die.”
By the time Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on the morning of September 20, Maricarmen Hernández Galarza had already evacuated once. It wasn’t going to be safe in her ninth-floor condo in the small central city of Caguas, so the day before the storm she headed to San Juan, where her parents were living in subsidized senior housing. Her 10-year-old son, Caleb, was with her.
In San Juan the four of them hunkered down for hours as the wind screamed, the floors shook, and rain poured in every window. At one point, believing it to be safer, they left their apartment on the sixth floor and took refuge in a stairwell three flights down. There, the wind had created suction so strong that the doors were flying open, and windows were breaking. Hernández threw herself against one of the doors and yelled at her family to run back up the flooded stairwell. Her son was screaming. Caleb has autism, and did not understand what was happening.
“We hid under a window,” she remembers two months later. “The rain was falling on us and we were holding each other there and I wanted to cry and cry but I could not. We were struggling with my son, hugging him, telling him that everything would be fine. I don’t know how long we were there.”
The storm raged over Puerto Rico for hours, and when, later on the 20th, it finally moved back out to sea, the first thing Hernández did was try to clean up her parents’ flooded apartment. It was, she admits, an exercise in futility — a desperate attempt to assert control over an uncontrollable situation.
“We looked around and it was like a horror movie,” she says, her voice shaking. “Everything looked burned, everything was knocked down. We did not really know what had happened.” Felled trees and debris were everywhere. Every tree left standing was stripped bare.
“I don’t know what was worse: the hurricane or what came after.”
“All we knew was what we could see with our own eyes,” she says. “We had nothing.”
This was true across Puerto Rico. With no electricity, no internet, and spotty cell service at best, communication with the rest of the world, or just the next town over, was almost impossible. The island’s three million residents were left to figure out how to survive on their own.
“I don’t know what was worse: the hurricane or what came after,” Hernández says. “It was all horribly dark.”
In August, Hernández, who has a masters degree in public health education, had been in the process of starting a rehab clinic for fibromyalgia patients with some friends, and doing public health workshops for teachers and other professionals. Just before the hurricane, she had been working as a community organizer, teaching the residents of her condominium complex how to prepare for Maria. But in its aftermath, her daily life was all about survival.
For two weeks, she cared for her son and her parents, who are in their late 70s, hauling water up six flights of stairs; getting up at 4 a.m. to wait in endless lines for food, medicine, gasoline. She cooked for the elderly neighbors, and bathed in water collected from the roof. She couldn’t sleep; she had nightmares. At times, it all seemed hopeless.
“Every day was like September 20 over and over,” Hernández says. “Emotionally, I was falling apart. Even with all the work I was doing, I did not know how to help my parents, who are so vulnerable. And my son. I did not know what was going to happen.”
Then, on October 3, she got a phone call — itself a small miracle — from her niece. Unbeknownst to her, relatives in Chicago, Orlando, and Houston had been working frantically to get her and her family off the island.
Go to the airport, her niece said. We have tickets for you on JetBlue.
Hernández, her son, and her mother arrived in Chicago at 5 p.m. that same day, with little more than a few suitcases full of dirty clothes.
Chicago Scrambles to Accommodate Hurricane Maria Evacuees
In the three months since Hurricane Maria, nearly a quarter million Puerto Ricans have left the island for the mainland — a radical escalation of the decade-long exodus spurred by recession and austerity policies imposed in response to the territory’s debt crisis. An October report by the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College estimated that as many as half a million could leave by the end of 2019, a number equal to the population lost from the island over the previous decade. More than 200,000 have already landed in Florida — a number itself already double the projections of the Hunter College report. Tens of thousands more have decamped to New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and, like Hernández and her family, Chicago, home to the third largest metropolitan population of Puerto Ricans on the mainland at 103,000.
The center of Chicago’s Puerto Rican community is the West Side neighborhood of Humboldt Park. With 16,000 Puerto Ricans residing there —representing 28 percent of the neighborhood’s population — it’s the largest Puerto Rican community in the Midwest. Unlike Florida and New York, Illinois does not have a host-state agreement with FEMA, so most of those who have fled Hurricane Maria for Chicago have been drawn to the city and to Humboldt Park by friends and family. Since Puerto Ricans are U.S. citizens, and can travel freely to the mainland, it’s impossible to say exactly how many have arrived so far, or how many plan to stay for long. Estimates range from 3,000 to, according 36th Ward Alderman Gilbert Villegas, leader of the City Council’s Latino Caucus, 10,000 to 15,000. As Puerto Rico continues to struggle with restoring power to the island (it’s currently estimated that full power may not return until May 2018) and livelihoods remain imperiled, many more are expected to arrive in this already densely populated community.
“I think we’re going to have big numbers,” says Omar Torres-Kortright, of the anticipated wave. He’s the executive director of the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center, a center for Puerto Rican and Afro-Caribbean art and a member of the Puerto Rican Agenda, a Chicago nonprofit that seeks to influence policy affecting the Puerto Rican community both in the diaspora and on the island. “But our numbers are going to be manageable enough that we should do a good job for Puerto Ricans.”
On October 2, one day before Hernández and her family flew north, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel declared that he’d like to see Chicago become “the Houston” of Hurricane Maria — to provide refuge for people fleeing Puerto Rico much as Houston opened itself up to Katrina evacuees in 2004. Exactly one month later Chicago opened a temporary resource center, or welcome center, inside the Humboldt Park field house, in the park that gives the community its name.
At the center, which is run by the city’s Office of Emergency Management Services and open two days a week, people arriving in Chicago from Puerto Rico can get help applying for FEMA disaster assistance or updating an existing application, as well as get access to city services. It’s the only such multiagency center in the country, and since it opened it’s served about 200 people a week.
On November 27, Emanuel and U.S. Representative Luis Gutierrez, whose congressional district includes Humboldt Park, and whose parents moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico in the 1950s, toured the center as dozens of families, a great many of them solo mothers with small children, clustered around the array of tables set up in the field house’s east gym. Signage in English and Spanish identified what was accessible at each table: Housing Assistance; Department of Human Services; the Puerto Rican Cultural Center; FEMA. Volunteer translators in bright yellow vests paired up with each family and walked them through the maze of services: Here’s where you can get a temporary ID, here’s information on how to fast track kids into Chicago Public Schools, here is a free puffy coat, courtesy of Catholic Charities, green for boys and pink for girls.
In a room down the hall, past where the Salvation Army was giving out coffee and granola bars, the Chicago Department of Public Health had set up shop. There, staffers offered referrals to primary care, mental health counseling, and pediatric medical services. In a corner, Walgreen’s gave out free flu shots. In the basement, the Chicago Park District ran a winter clothing drive.
“A lot of this immediate assistance is going to wear off very fast and we need to give these folks jobs. We need to put them in a permanent place.”
“Many [Puerto Ricans] have been suffering for over two months without electricity, without water, with children crying,” said Gutierrez at the brief press event. “They’re really in a state of stress. And I want everyone to think about when you felt a little lost, a little bewildered, and not very focused. … What did you need? You needed someone to extend a warm, helping hand.
“The Trump administration could learn something from Chicago,” he added. “This is an example for New York, for Orlando, for Philadelphia — for everywhere that the Puerto Rican community is coming.”
Just a few hours later news broke that the longtime Democratic congressman would not run for re-election in 2018; he was going to instead work on immigration reform and rebuilding Puerto Rico. By later in the week rumors of a 2020 presidential bid were making the rounds.
The resource center is currently slated to stay open through January 2; its dates of operation have already been extended twice, and could likely be again. But regardless of the fate of this one-stop shop for Maria evacuees, the question remains: With the city and state already suffering the effects of fiscal austerity, how can city agencies stretch to accommodate the newcomers? How can community based organizations, already doing great work with very limited resources, be able to meet the complex needs of a fragile population suffering such trauma and loss?
Under Republican Governor Bruce Rauner, the state went without a budget for two years. When, in July 2017, a razor-thin majority of the state legislature overrode the governor’s veto of the most recent budget proposal, ending the impasse, the state was $16 billion behind on its bills, including more than a year of payments to social service agencies serving children, the homeless, and those in need of mental health care.
“This is an intervention, what is going on in Humboldt Park,” says Charlie Serrano, chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda’s policy and public affairs committee, of the welcome center. Serrano, who’s also the managing director of the Antilles Strategy Group, a strategic planning consulting firm for the Caribbean, grants that he’s been impressed so far with the response of the city, and the response of a mayor with whom he often disagrees. But, he urges, the city needs to pay attention to the big picture. “A lot of this immediate assistance is going to wear off very fast and we need to give these folks jobs. We need to put them in a permanent place,” he says, adding a reminder that after the resource center closes, “people are going to keep on coming.”
Hernández, and those aiming to help her, figure it out as they go along
When she arrived in Chicago, Hernández and her family initially stayed with her sister in Franklin Park, trying to make sense of what had happened.
“I was very disoriented,” she says. “I think I was in denial.”
It was still weeks before the resource center would open, and guidance for evacuees was being offered on an ad hoc basis at best. At one point, Hernández sought help by walking into a local Puerto Rican restaurant and talking to the owners. But then her sister had heard Rep. Gutierrez say something on television about Chicago having “open doors” for Puerto Ricans fleeing the aftermath of Maria, so they figured that would be a good place to start.
At the congressman’s office, a staffer gave her a list of city agencies and a handful of pamphlets, suggesting places to go for assistance. One of those places was the Segundo Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center.
Volunteer Frank Diaz had been working at SRBCC for less than three weeks when Maria hit. As soon as he heard how bad the storm had been, he says he knew people were going to start showing up in Chicago. “We’re listed as a resource for evacuees, even though the Center proper doesn’t really have anything to give out or any services. It’s a cultural center! Still, we’re there to help.”
When Hernández showed up on his doorstep, says Diaz, she was armed with pamphlets from Gutierrez’s office but lost on how to take advantage of them. “No one had stopped and said, ‘What do you need right now, so that we can tell you where you should go?’
“I’m not a case manager by any means but I have an idea,” Diaz continues. “So I said, ‘Mira, Maricarmen you should start here. Don’t bother going there. It’s all red tape. They’ll take up all your time and put you on a list. Don’t run around like crazy. Go here, call here first. They’ll help you in Spanish.’ And so on.”
For people who’ve lost everything, who don’t have a sense of the city’s geography, who lack easy transportation, and for whom English may be a second language at best, finding permanent housing is a tremendous challenge — especially in a city already facing an affordable housing crisis.
When they were done, Diaz took the pamphlets Hernández had gotten from Gutierrez’s office and photocopied them so he’d have something to give to the next evacuee who came along.
The Department of Human Services, one of Hernández’s next stops, referred her to Casa Central, a longtime social services agency in Humboldt Park. That organization was the first to give Hernández significant help, in the form of temporary housing for her family, which, by this point included her father.
The Hernández family is the first and so far only Puerto Rican family to find refuge at Casa Central’s shelter post-Maria. But, says supervisor Doreen Herrera-Gauger, they’re expecting others. The shelter can house 22 families in apartments replete with kitchens and bathrooms — a step up from a dorm or a semi-communal environment and a real boon to trying to re-establish some sort of normalcy. But families can only stay for four months.
As soon as people move in, says Herrera-Gauger, finding a permanent place to live is paramount. But for people who’ve lost everything, who don’t have a sense of the city’s geography, who lack easy transportation, and for whom English may be a second language at best, that’s a tremendous challenge — especially in a city already facing an affordable housing crisis.
According to a 2016 MacArthur study, almost half the city’s renters report they can’t afford the monthly rent on their homes. When the Chicago Housing Authority’s waitlist closed in 2014, it had more than 282,000 households on it. It’s slated to open again for new applicants in January.
Plus, points out Herrera-Gauger, in Puerto Rico, subsidized housing and medical care are linked. “If you have specific health conditions then you’re qualified for certain housing opportunities,” she says. On the mainland, newcomers have to apply for medical benefits and housing separately. “It’s huge, very huge,” says Herrera-Gauger, “and I was not aware of that until this.”
Herrera-Gauger and Casa Central family support case manager Yury Feliciano smile when asked if they received any sort of briefing from the city regarding a possible influx of people post-Maria.
“No,” says Feliciano. “It’s a lot of self teaching, and a lot of research.”
In fact, they didn’t hear about the welcome center in the park, less than half a mile away, through any official channel. Feliciano thinks she saw a DNAinfo article about it on Facebook.
Still, even if everyone is making it up as they go along, Feliciano and Herrera-Gauger stress that the city seems eager to help.
“If people don’t know the answers, people have been extremely willing to figure them out,” says Feliciano. “They have worked with these families to get them the help that they need.”
With temporary shelter obtained, the focus shifts to Caleb
“I think Chicago has the best intentions,” says Puerto Rican Agenda co-chair Cristina Pacione-Zayas, “and has done a lot in terms of channeling resources and helping people get access to things like FEMA help and resources from the city.”
But, she stresses, it’s important that those resources be culturally competent, “and that we highlight and elevate the orgs that have historically been serving the community.”
Pacione-Zayas, who’s the director of policy at Chicago’s Erikson Institute for early childhood education, has been involved with the Agenda since 2010, and co-chair (with Jessie Fuentes) since 2014. The group, whose members run the gamut of political affiliations, has worked extensively on housing and gentrification issues in Humboldt Park, and was involved in securing the release of Oscar López Rivera, the Puerto Rican nationalist imprisoned for 35 years on charges of seditious conspiracy before he was granted clemency with no conditions by President Obama in the final days of his presidency.
In mid-September, when it was clear that Maria was going to make a direct hit on Puerto Rico, the Agenda mobilized, organizing a fundraiser at Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center that collected more than $70,000 in the first few days after the hurricane. That money was used to send a plane loaded with emergency supplies to San Juan on September 25, one of the first private shipments of humanitarian aid to make it to the island. That plane — donated by United Airlines at the request of Gutierrez and Emanuel — returned to Chicago the same day with 300 evacuees.
Since then, the Agenda has continued to fundraise, sending a second planeload of aid to Puerto Rico on September 28; a third, bearing medical supplies, is slated to leave January 5. But the group’s focus is now as much on helping Puerto Ricans newly arriving in Chicago as it is on rebuilding the island they’ve fled, and along with 26th Ward alderman Roberto Maldonado, they were heavily involved in conceptualizing and implementing the welcome center in Humboldt Park.
After a month, Caleb finally started to receive speech therapy, but Hernández remained unimpressed. It was in English, as was a psychological evaluation conducted in mid-December.
“People are literally coming here with nothing,” says Pascione-Zayas. “They’re going to need significant wraparound support — not just food and shelter but medical care, jobs.” The most urgent need right now, she reiterates, is for safe, affordable housing.
For Hernández, finding an affordable place for a family of four was a tall order, not to mention having to search on her own while also caring for her parents and her son. But she did get herself on the CHA’s disaster victims waitlist, and applied for an apartment run by Hispanic Housing, a 40-year-old community development organization with about 3,900 apartments across Illinois, and some in Indiana, Wisconsin, and Michigan. But, says CEO Paul Roldán, “We don’t actually have any apartments.” They’re all full.
After the hurricane, says Roldán, he moved quickly to push Puerto Rican evacuees to the top of the organization’s waitlist. So far they’ve housed six families, and another 12 are moving imminently, as soon as their paperwork is finalized. But that right there maxed out the organization’s supply of subsidized housing. Administrative assistant Widna Rivera, who’s been staffing Hispanic Housing’s table at the center in Humboldt Park, says she has another 217 families on her list, about half of whom need some sort of rental assistance, and none of whom are high income.
“We have people who have arrived with three kids, four kids,” she says. “We have seniors, so we have age-restricted buildings for them. … We have a lot of people with mobility issues: wheelchairs, walkers, asthma, canes. It’s a long process to do the matching up.
“If we could get CHA to start giving out vouchers that would make a huge difference in being able to help people,” she adds.
FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance program has been able to provide a small number of people with temporary housing, but in hotels outside of the city — far from potential support networks of family and friends, not to mention the city agencies and community organizations that can help with long-term solutions — and the program expires January 19. Rivera says they’re already “starting to see homelessness.”
Roldán says he’s been lobbying the city to release Housing Choice Vouchers (HCVs), which will subsidize rent, to evacuees, but so far, no dice. “I haven’t been successful in persuading anyone at City Hall or at the CHA to understand that that is the mission of HUD, to house those in the most need — those who are homeless.”
A spokesperson for CHA says that as of December 8 the authority had received 12 requests to transfer existing HCVs from Puerto Rico to Chicago, two of which have been approved. Another 120 people are on the same waitlist as Hernández, and the agency was hoping to house 20 percent of them by mid-December.
When asked what he thinks about the city’s response to the Maria evacuees, Torres-Kortright of SRBCC says, “We will know more as the time progresses and we see the response to the evacuees that are coming.” He points to the response of Chicago Public Schools as a still-evolving concern. “We need them to really be more specific about what they’re doing.”
Approximately 170 school-age Maria evacuees have already been enrolled in Chicago Public Schools. Students migrating to Chicago don’t need to prove residency, or provide transcripts necessarily; fees are being waived and school uniforms provided. But placement is the beginning of the process; not the end. Many Maria evacuees speak Spanish primarily or exclusively; a sudden influx of ELL students could strain already threadbare language resources.
One in five CPS students is an English learner; Spanish-speaking students make up the overwhelming majority — 83 percent — of them. But a June 2017 study by the Chicago Reporter found that of 342 CPS schools audited, 71 percent, or 242, had inadequate bilingual programs. Among other concerns, the district has a radical shortage of bilingual and ELL teachers, with more than 100 positions remaining unfilled at the end of every school year.
Special needs students like Hernández’s son — who requires an Individualized Education Program (IEP) — are in a double bind. In Caguas, Hernández says, Caleb was in a great school, and getting the behavioral and speech therapy he needed. Here, he was placed quickly in the neighborhood school near the Casa Central shelter, in a classroom with other special needs students, but his mother says there are too few teachers and aides, and he’s often on his own. She walks over to the school every day to help him at lunchtime, something she says the school does not approve of.
After a month, Caleb finally started to receive speech therapy, but Hernández remained unimpressed. It was in English, as was a psychological evaluation conducted in mid-December. CPS says it has 50 bilingual psychologists available to assess “diverse learners” in their primary language. When asked why Caleb didn’t receive one, they fail to give an answer. Hernández refused to sign off on the psychologist’s assessment, arguing it was useless.
On December 18, Hernández, fighting a fierce chest cold, went back to the resource center in Humboldt Park. She told a CPS representative there she was so frustrated she was on the verge of pulling Caleb from school; that he was too stressed, and having difficulty coping. The rep asked her not to remove him just yet — they were trying, she said. Give us time. Later that day the school social worker called to say they had found a bilingual psychologist.
“Great, but where were they before?” she grumbled later.
Earlier this year, CPS CEO Forrest Claypool came under fire for sweeping cuts to the district’s special education program. An investigation by WBEZ in October found that the 2016 overhaul, directed by consultants with no experience in special education, had radically reduced services like busing and one-on-one aides for special education students, in possible violation of federal law.
Claypool, a longtime Emanuel ally, resigned December 7 after being accused by the district’s inspector general of engineering a “full-blown cover-up” designed to obstruct an ongoing ethics investigation into CPS general counsel Ron Maumer, who himself resigned December 12. On December 11 the Illinois State Board of Education announced it would investigate the changes to Chicago’s special education program.
In times of crisis, mental health care seems a luxury
“It was my community or my family,” says Hernández of her decision to leave Puerto Rico. “My parents and my son were so vulnerable. … There are days when my son sees the rain or feels the sound of the wind, he says, ‘Is there a hurricane here? Did Maria come back?’ And I also get scared because I’m also connected to that traumatic memory that I know I’m going to overcome. But I have my days that I am gray and I try as much as I can to have hope. I do not want to give up the hope that everything will turn out well.”
It’s normal for material needs — food, shelter, medicine — to take precedence in the aftermath of trauma. Mental health care seems a luxury, and as a result stress, anxiety, nightmares, and depression can go untreated for months. A recent New York Times story warned of a looming mental health crisis in Puerto Rico in the wake of the hurricane, and PTSD is not limited to those who remain on the island.
Across several interviews, Hernández is emotional, and tearful at times. In Puerto Rico, she didn’t have a real sense of the devastation. When she arrived in Chicago and was able to watch the news and access social media, she says, it was almost worse. “When I saw the massive destruction, when I see people asking for food, that they did not have water, I said, ‘My God, how horrible. …’ I felt that I was getting depressed. When I come here, the first thing I say to Yury is that I need help. I cried every day.”
After the hurricane, she says, while still in Puerto Rico, Caleb kept asking where they were, unable to grasp that the storm-ravaged streets of San Juan were the same places he’d been the day before. He still doesn’t understand, and on a particularly blustery day in Chicago he was agitated, scared by the sound of the wind. “It is for him a process of great loss,” says Hernández.
“My parents and my son were so vulnerable. … There are days when my son sees the rain or feels the sound of the wind, he says, ‘Is there a hurricane here? Did Maria come back?’”
For people processing trauma, being able to talk about what has happened to them, and feel heard, is key to moving forward. But accessible bilingual mental health care is hard to find in Chicago. Casa Central has just one part-time counselor on staff; she works one day a week, and doesn’t speak Spanish.
Citywide, community mental health organizations have suffered greatly the effects of the state budget crisis. When the state legislature finally passed a temporary budget in July 2017, service providers across Illinois were owed millions by the state. Many had drastically reduced staff and programs; others had privatized.
“I think it’s reasonable to see additional resources come from the city or state,” says Pacione-Zayas, of the crisis in community mental health. “People will prioritize when they feel the pressure.” In other situations, she notes, “the city has been able to step up and provide resources we didn’t even know they had. They found the money.”
Counseling isn’t offered in any formal sense at the welcome center in Humboldt Park, but many of the people working there wind up offering impromptu support.
“To sit there every Monday and Tuesday — it has totally changed me,” says Hispanic Housing’s Rivera. “I pray with them. I cry with them. I hear them out. Everybody is pulling through and everyone is trying so hard to help. But I honestly don’t think we were prepared for this.”
“The first thing we want to do is make sure we are linking them to the correct services,” says Frankie Shipman-Amuwo, director of planning, research and development for CDPH’s Emergency Preparedness Bureau, who oversees the Health Connections Room. The bilingual assessment form they use asks explicitly: Neccesitan servicias de consejería? Do you need counseling services?
Everyone working at the welcome center, both city employees, representatives from community based organizations, and volunteers, got some basic training in psychological first aid, and are on the lookout for triggers — “words like sadness, shock, coping,” Shipman-Amuwo says. “Some have mentioned feeling hopeless.”
Since the resource center’s been open CDPH has seen an average of 130 people a week, and referred approximately 20 percent of them to its Lawndale mental health clinic, four miles to the south. A closer city clinic a mile north of the park, at Fullerton and California avenues, was closed in 2012, and its predominantly Hispanic clientele has been redirected to Lawndale ever since. Across the city’s six remaining mental health clinics, including Lawndale, there are four bilingual counselors on staff, who are assigned to clinics as needed; a fifth was set to start December 18.
Beyond words, though, there are other tells to look for. Trauma also manifests somatically: through pain, insomnia, migraines, stomach aches, points out Ida Roldán, the academic dean at the Institute for Clinical Social Work in Chicago (and the wife of Hispanic Housing CEO Paul Roldán).
Roldán traveled to Puerto Rico with the Red Cross at the end of November, and came back with pneumonia, and the first-hand conviction that Maria created a mental health crisis. “The mind-body piece can’t be separated,” she says, “and that’s a definition of trauma, when your life has been directly threatened or you have witnessed a loved one’s life directly threatened. Everyone who went through that storm went through that experience.
“If [trauma is] not addressed, long-term you’ll have more people in clinics, and in emergency rooms complaining about physical symptoms. With children it can have dire developmental consequences.”
“If it’s not addressed,” she continues, “long-term you’ll have more people in clinics, and in emergency rooms complaining about physical symptoms. With children it can have dire developmental consequences, in terms of cognitive impairment, in terms of learning issues. Children especially have to feel safe to grow and thrive. The more quickly you respond to the needs of these families, [the better]. It’s been a slow response so far. With trauma, the consequences are increased depending on the duration.”
For Hernández, the storm starts to clear
About six weeks after Hernández and her family arrived in Chicago, on November 16, Casa Central hosted its fourth annual Hunger and Homelessness awareness event. This year’s focus was the unique needs of people rendered homeless by a natural disaster. They screened a video about both the hurricane and the Mexico City earthquake, and Yury Feliciano gave a brief talk on disaster and trauma, and how service providers can help without succumbing to compassion fatigue.
In between presentations, staff and clients read poems they had written, their titles — “Courage,” “Strength,” “Hurricane” — speaking to the overarching theme. Hernández’s was titled “Lugar Seguro” — “Safe Place.” Here’s the first stanza:
Cuan densa oscuridad
Donde todo y nada a de pasar
Camino incierto, huellas no hay
El sonido del viento ensordecedor
Pretendiendo silenciar la paz.
How much dense darkness
Where everything and nothing can pass
Uncertain road, tracks are not there
The sound of the deafening wind.
“The reality on the island was horrible, desperate,” Hernández told the assembled crowd after reading her poem, her quiet voice cracking with emotion. As she spoke Caleb darted around the room, then returned to lean his head on her shoulder. When we arrived in Chicago, she continued, “we realized we were truly naked” — not just stripped of material goods but psychologically raw and vulnerable as well.
But she ended on a note of hope. “Today is the first day I have been able to tell my story,” she said. “I feel like all I have been doing until now is surviving, and today I am able to start living.”
A month later, she says she’s starting to make sense of what has happened, and is at least able to recognize what sort of help they need. “We haven’t really worked on our emotions. The anxiety continues, the insomnia continues for all four of us. It’s as if the circle hasn’t closed yet.”
“I feel like all I have been doing until now is surviving, and today I am able to start living.”
Hernández has good days and bad days. Her asthma’s been acting up lately and the stress of three generations living in the same space is wearing on them all. Still, she laughs, reaching for the English idiom, “No pain, no gain.” There’s a long way to go, but she’s grateful for the help she’s received. She’s been volunteering with a Humboldt Park church and hopes that, soon enough, she can give back in some way.
“Sometimes in life we do not choose what gets to be part of our story,” she says. “But every morning and every second I say thank you Lord, because everyone here in Chicago has been part of my story; because everyone has been here for me at the time I needed it the most, and did not know it was coming.”
On December 19, Hernández, her son, and her parents looked at a three-bedroom CHA unit in the Albany Park neighborhood, four miles northwest of the Casa Central shelter. As Caleb ran around assigning people to bedrooms, and her parents poked their heads into closets and nodded approvingly, Hernández looked at the small rectangle of brown grass outside the front door: “I can plant things here?” The place is still being rehabbed but if all goes well they could move in in early January. It’s a good 20-minute walk to the el, and the neighborhood elementary school is, in Hernández’s view, overenrolled. But it’s clean and seems safe, and the rent and utilities are fully subsidized for six months.
As she waited at the management office to sign the paperwork, a young woman approached and asked in Spanish for her help communicating with the receptionist. She too, had come to Chicago from Puerto Rico, from Comerío, at the end of October. She’d been told last week the CHA had an apartment for her, but had been waiting since then for a confirmation phone call. Hernández’s English is still halting — she’s starting ELL classes at Wright College in January — but it was better than the newcomer’s, so she gave it her best shot.
Support for this article was provided by Rise Local, a project of the New America National Network.
Martha Bayne is a Chicago-based freelance journalist, and a senior editor with Belt Publishing. Her features and essays have appeared in Belt, Buzzfeed, the Baffler, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Reader, Latterly magazine, and the Rumpus, among other outlets. The editor of Belt Publishing’s Rust Belt Chicago: An Anthology (2017), she is also the founder of the long running Soup & Bread community meal project and hunger-relief fundraiser, and a member of Theater Oobleck’s artistic ensemble. For more see marthabayne.com.
Michelle Kanaar is a photojournalist based in Chicago who focuses on social justice issues. She has an M.A. in photojournalism from the University of Missouri and also teaches photojournalism to teens. She believes in the power of photography to affect change.