CIVIC CENTER — Public Advocate Letitia James has unveiled a plan to help Puerto Ricans seeking refuge in New York City from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria with housing, schooling, and employment programs.
But Mayor Bill de Blasio insisted the city cannot provide this kind of comprehensive assistance.
"I don't want to encourage people to come here if they don't have some family to turn to," de Blasio told reporters on Thursday when asked about those seeking shelter in the city.
James' plan also calls for subsidized MetroCards for the first six months, waived eligibility requirements for the IDNYC program, and temporary access to food stamps.
"As a city with a significant Puerto Rican and West Indian population, we must anticipate an influx in arrival of these displaced Americans," James said at a press conference on Thursday, "and ensure that we are adequately prepared to address their pressing needs."
While James said she expects many Puerto Ricans to seek shelter with their families in New York City, her plan would provide those seeking immediate housing with temporary housing or guidance through benefit programs that offer housing and cash assistance. The plan also seeks to expand the city's homeless diversion program that allows New Yorkers to host families who would otherwise be homeless.
She's also calling for the Department of Education to help parents of children from Puerto Rico identify appropriate schools, make counseling services available, and provide school supplies for displaced children. And James wants the Department of Small Business Services to help their parents find temporary or permanent jobs.
James has no estimate of how many displaced families the city can expect, but noted that there are 20,000 Puerto Ricans in Florida who have sought refuge. The Public Advocate added there were no cost estimates for her plan either, but asserted that the plan can be paid for within the existing city budget.
The mayor's office declined to comment on James' ideas, but said that the city is sending supplies and emergency management experts to Puerto Rico, as well as making schools and other resources available in New York City.
"We are in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis. Housing for refugees from Puerto Rico isn’t something we have, as much as we’d like to provide it in an ideal world," Eric Phillips, spokesperson for the mayor, said in an email. "Those coming to New York City are coming because they have family here capable of providing housing."
Despite the mayor's opposition, the Public Advocate's office said they would continue to push for the plan.
"New York City has long stood as a beacon of hope for those seeking refuge and today is no different. We should not and will not turn away any displaced persons seeking refuge or assistance," James said in a statement to DNAinfo New York.
For Carlos Martinez, a former board member of Make the Road NY, his family in Puerto Rico could directly benefit from James' plan. Martinez' five siblings, eldest son, and their families are all currently trying to rebuild their neighborhoods, but his elderly stepfather may need to be transported out of the country since he won't be able to see a doctor for the next year.
"The struggle is that if the medication, the hospitals, and the support system in the hospitals fail, then we need to transport a lot of people over here because their health comes first," Martinez said.
Ana Maria Archila, the co-executive director of the Center for Popular Democracy—the nonprofit organization that recently created the Hurricane Maria Community Relief and Recovery Fund—recalled the experience of her recent trip to Puerto Rico.
"I saw the reality of what it's like to live without electricity, to live without running water, to live without being able to communicate with their families, to know that their hospitals will close, to know that the schools are closed and to actually not know what the future looks like," Archilla said.
Archila is hoping the city will adopt James' plan.
"It is really an essential task for city government to put in place systems that allow people to live with dignity," Archila said. "Because what we want in this world is for all of us to have the freedom to stay in the places we love, the freedom to move to look for opportunities, and the freedom to thrive everywhere."