National VOAD sat down for a discussion with Julia Menzo from Lutheran Disaster Response, and Laura Olson, a Lecturer at Georgetown University's Emergency and Disaster Management Program, about their work with the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee. The GPLTRC is currently engaging with and providing services for, Hurricane Maria evacuees.
In addition, we discussed the involvement of National VOAD agencies, urgent needs, and what more your organizations can do to help support this important work.
What is the mission of the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee?
Julia Menzo: We were formed in March 2018, and we formed out of a number of indicators that showed there was a need to talk about support for local communities, and in setting up long-term recovery committees. We engaged with Hispanic communities in cooperation with the Philadelphia Office of Emergency Management. A coalition of Hispanic agencies had already been formed in order to support Puerto Rico in particular, but when it came time to support evacuees from Puerto Rico in state, that group and support system was in place. With the assistance of state local and federal authorities we decided to form an LTRC. We started as a group that would assist with the various urgent needs of these groups but it quickly became apparent that the most urgent need was housing.
Laura Olson: From a research perspective also, one way we think this LTRC is unique is it hasn't been formed in the area of impact of a disaster. GPLTRC is also a solution for the diaspora, for these evacuees. It is an adaptation of the LTRC model in the sense that it is providing solutions far away from where the disaster occurred. I think it is very unique in that way.
How have you gone about addressing the need for housing?
JM: Early on we asked our case managers their expectations of how many families would return home to Puerto Rico after the more severe effects of the hurricane had ended or been resolved. We were trying to figure out how to dedicate resources for the needs of an LTRC, and also to even establish what our goal was for housing. Is it a temporary shelter, or a year lease for families; what is the end goal of people coming here? Early on we didn't really know.
Certainly a lot of people coming want to return and still say they would want to return later but do not expect to do so soon because of the simple fact that even if they had very little in PR and had nothing that they were coming with, the opportunity is here. That is how many evacuees have been articulating it. So far, we have seen few families returning, or those who have set deadlines of several years, where they will wait for their kids to be done with school, for example.
We didn't have significant resources when we first started working within the VOAD network, so we looked at potential models from refugee resettlement communities and looked for housing solutions like short term stays until the family or individual found a permanent solution. Most of those fell through because every group wanted us to find a transition plan for the families before the group would get involved. There was a lot of anxiety around finding housing. Of course, there was the TSA program, but the anxiety of the program expiring was always a difficulty. The first deadline for TSA was on Valentines Day, I remember.
How has the VOAD movement helped your work?
JM: One of the members of Southeast Pennsylvania VOAD is the communications person for Pennsylvania VOAD so that was an immediate link. Pennsylvania is probably a lot different than Gulf Coast VOADs or California VOAD or New York VOAD even, in that we do not respond to many major, major events. In this case, VOAD members immediately made available resources and connections that they had. The Salvation Army provided refrigerators, and UMCOR provided mattresses, for example.
LO: The case statement provided by Center for Disaster Philanthropy really opened the door for funders. I had worked with CDP in Louisiana. We had them share it with their whole network, alerting a wide range of potential donors in that way. The members of the GPLTRC also spread that case statement within their network as well. The committee has flown beneath the radar a bit and this effort helped get us get the word out.
How did you engage with local communities to help aid evacuees?
JM: Early on, we tried to find ways to develop trust among partners who didn't typically work together. Our leadership for the LTRC is made up of 3 Hispanic agencies, plus LDR, and another rep from Salvation Army. The fact that Hispanic community leadership is so engaged is one of the things we are proud of about our LTRC. One of the things that was so helpful from National VOAD in that regard is that there were templates and resources available from the Long-Term Recovery Ad-Hoc Committee, and how to form them. Having something in place like that that, that shows a way to work together, a way that protects client confidentiality, a way that gives us ground rules for cooperating with each other, a way that reflects that the bottom line goal is to help evacuees, was critical in building trust with the communities we were trying to serve.
This disaster made it clear that we are not prepared to deal with people who do not speak English. So one of the things we have talked about is even if we can not have every document in Spanish, can we at least have taglines, or announcements, or as much messaging as possible directing people where they can go to help from FEMA, or where a resource fair is going to be. The resources are limited to support voluntary agencies to do that work.
However, the trust built between Hispanic agencies active in Philadelphia and voluntary agencies helped meet that gap. They were able to provide casework and translation services, even going to appointments with clients, so that evacuees could navigate the system better.
There are some key people from the Hispanic community who see the LTRC as a long term solution. They see the value of increasing resiliency for all Philadelphians and any other new evacuees who may come from future events, and they have been insistent on not calling it the Hurricane Maria recovery committee, but rather keep it generic so that we can change our mission statement as needed. Whether that event is in the Hispanic community or somewhere else.
What is your biggest challenge now? What are your needs?
JM: One of our challenges was figuring out what “local” was in this kind of event. This disaster event for us meant that “local” was NE Philadelphia and the heart of the Hispanic community. So that is where we focused efforts and cultivated leadership and listened to that leadership about needs. The VOAD agencies came in and brought their tools and best practices, and together, we were able to come up with solutions.
Since we have had success in trying to find resources and making resources with VOADs and the evacuee populations, our main goal now is to help local agencies continue on this work. We have had some comments about “why do we need LTR this far out”, but honestly, for a lot of people coming through this experience, this still feels like Week 1 to them. They are not in their homes where the disaster happened, and they are often not with their families or friends. Part of our wanting to get the word out about GPLTRC is that it is not time to celebrate yet; there are still people that need help.
One of the ways that the VOAD network can further assist the GPLTRC is in helping us strengthen our resource and revenue streams. With time passing and new events demanding attention, and traditional state resources needing to transition, some of those resources we had early on are waning. The fact that we still have evacuees coming to Philadelphia, and those already here still needing assistance for the long term, we are looking for funding for rental assistance, case management, program oversight, and emergency housing. Rental assistance and case management are the most critical needs for evacuees. We are on a campaign to raise funding for those essential support services.
LO: The operational costs of keeping LTRCs going is tough, as there is a need for staff positions, etc. Usually that funding is hard to find in the local philanthropic movement, and that is something that the VOAD movement could definitely help with. Keeping the long-term recovery effort together is our biggest challenge right now. I would also say that one thing I think is very important is this idea of climate migration that we are studying as well, in that, we are entering into a new world where disasters are not contained within the borders where they occur. Where the disasters spill over, and the responsibility of who is taking care of evacuees is shifting. We are seeing fewer resources outside of the area of impact. For Katrina we saw 44 host-state agreements and only saw 1 after Hurricane Maria. The costs are really falling on local governments and the non-profit sector. So in a way, what is very interesting about this case is that it is a harbinger of the future. How do we have to be prepared? What does preparedness mean in a place like Pennsylvania that does not have disasters on a large scale, like Julia talked about, but a disaster comes to them?
This is particularly interesting because the level of relationships amongst the different parties were so strong between the VOADs and the local government, but they also have the ability to overcome trust barriers to bring in new partners and form the types of bonds of trust that allows them to come together to pool resources and find solutions that we haven’t seen happening elsewhere. For me, these are key moments here. They have done something tremendous in Pennsylvania.