Puerto Ricans Resettled In Cleveland Still Struggling One Year After Maria

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It’s been nearly a year since Kritzia Basmeson resettled to Cleveland after Hurricane Maria. She lives with her three children on the west side of Cleveland above a hair salon where she works part-time.  

But adjusting to a new city remains difficult, partly because she still worries about her family back in Puerto Rico.

"We all have a little piece over there," Basmeson said, "one little piece over there that we left. And it’s heartbreaking."

In Cleveland’s Ohio City neighborhood at the Spanish American Committee, the last year has seen a flow of people resettling from Puerto Rico — and it’s not stopping anytime soon, says Executive Director Ramonita Vargas.

"This organization has seen over 780 families, and over 1800 individuals in the last year and still coming every day," Vargas said. 

Vargas says many of those 1800 people have applied for housing through Cuyahoga Metropolitan Housing Authority, but most are still displaced, living out of friends’ basements or shelters, one year later.

"10 percent of the people that have come here and put in the application for CMHA have found apartments," Vargas said. "10 percent. And 15 percent have found jobs. But the rest are still just looking, waiting."

While housing is the major issue for most families, mental health issues continue to plague them as well. Jessenia Velez is a social worker with Spanish American Committee who was brought on the team this last year.

"People when they talk about how depressed they are and how they feel, they always go back to, I feel alone here," Velez said. "I want to go back to Puerto Rico but I don’t want to go back there. Most of these people lost family members when the hurricane happened, so they need to grieve while they are trying to settle down here. And they see their own condition of life and they say I don’t know what to do."

Velez is currently working with nine families from Puerto Rico who have specific mental health needs — depression, anxiety, or mental illnesses like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. She helps them to develop a treatment plan.

"When they come to me, most of the time they right away say, 'I need help for this,' 'I’m struggling with this,' 'my son doesn’t want to go to school because he has anxiety disorder,'" Velez said. "So we create a treatment plan. What are your goals? What are his goals? And we work through that."

Back at Kritzia Basmeson’s west side apartment, she considers herself lucky — she was able to find temporary housing until she can save up enough money for a better place.

And she’s grateful she was able to make it to Cleveland before she had her third child, 4-month-old Zabryel. Basmeson knew she had to get to the mainland because Puerto Rico’s healthcare system was destroyed after the hurricane.

"I left because I was taking care of my family, I was pregnant and I was struggling, I couldn’t get a doctor," Basmeson said. "When I came over here, I had like seven doctors, because I had complications over everything — high blood pressure, sugar, all that stuff. Thank God I was not in Puerto Rico, because my son would not be here."

While she misses home, she hopes to see Puerto Rico rebuild in the future.

"Don’t forget about us," Basmeson said. "Because the key word is loss, and that says a lot. Like this is a good time to build up. And not have a new Puerto Rico, but to make it better."

For now, she’ll continue working two jobs and helping her daughters adjust to school, rebuilding their new home in Cleveland.

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