Displaced by a hurricane: The quest for housing | Guest Column

Woman describes challenges of helping family move from Puerto Rico to Bellevue

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series by Bellevue resident Rebecca Chatfield detailing the challenges of how she helped the Muñoz-Cintrón family relocate from Puerto Rico to Bellevue following Hurricane Maria.

I learned that Rafael Muñoz-Cintrón and his family, displaced by Hurricane Maria, were moving to Bellevue. I began to talk with my friends and relatives. Just how does a family move somewhere new — without possessions, lacking a source of income and needing a place to live? Nobody quite knew how to go about helping them, and neither did I.

I figured they could stay at someone’s house at first, and then transition to whatever housing was available for displaced families. I asked a counselor at a local housing aid organization for help.

The answers I got were maddening. The aid counselor told me that if Rafael’s family stayed even one night with friends or family, they would no longer be considered homeless and thus ineligible for aid. If they stayed in a hotel, someone else had to pay for it. And all the homeless shelters were full.

With more digging, I found an option. Federal Emergency Management Agency has transitional shelter assistance providing funds for short-term lodging for people displaced by natural disasters. I located a hotel in the FEMA program close to my house, but in the end, Rafael could not get access to the required authorization number to pay the hotel bill because his disaster recovery account was stuck at “pending” status. High demand from multiple recent disasters had gummed up the system. The hotel manager was all too happy to take a credit card instead.

Rafael’s family needed a stable place to live. Housing was the key. They couldn’t open a bank account without a permanent residence. They couldn’t enroll their daughters in school. They couldn’t get Washington state drivers licenses or IDs without an address. Without housing, everything stalled.

A realtor friend found a rental house just coming on the market, in a neighborhood of good schools. The landlord, hearing the family’s story, was willing to sign a lease with a reduced rent, even though Rafael didn’t yet have a job. I hustled over to the house to check it out. The house was pleasant and suitable. Best of all, the aid organization had a special fund to cover move-in costs.

It was literally too good to be true. Maybe I should have expected the nasty plot twist. The day before Rafael and his family were scheduled to move into the house, I got an email from the aid organization, disqualifying the landlord from their payment program because she didn’t fit their required parameters. A flurry of emails back and forth didn’t help.

My stubborn streak emerged. I decided that losing this house and starting over would not be an option, so I moved into fast problem-solving mode. By the end of the day I was able to collect up enough private cash donations for initial move-in costs, and the landlord signed the lease with Rafael and his wife Margarita. It was such a relief to secure permanent housing for this family, so they could settle in.

During the search for housing, I had reached out to my community, talking about this family and their amazing story. Individuals, businesses, and local churches signaled willingness to help. I gathered up donated beds and bedding, some chairs and a table and a few household supplies. Bags of clothes arrived in carloads. People asked for correct sizes so they could donate winter coats. Gift cards for Safeway took care of food.

Once Rafael’s family had a place to live, the flood of donated items finally had a place to land. I felt both overwhelmed and buoyed by the generosity constantly sloshing over us, and so proud of Bellevue for welcoming these newest residents so warmly.

Bellevue resident Rebecca Chatfield, PhD, advises nonprofits, small businesses and individuals how to align mission and strategy.