In the wake of two deadly hurricanes, a housing crisis is looming in the territory for those displaced by the storms.
It’s still unknown exactly how many people have been displaced from their homes, and many whose homes were destroyed or damaged have left the islands, are bunking with friends and family or are staying in shelters.
But the magnitude of the problem means that available housing is tight, and it’s unclear how the government plans to care for those who rely on public housing.
Leonise Greig-Powell, 75, has been living in her blown-out apartment in Tutu Hi-Rise housing community with no power, water, or walls.
Shortly after an article about her situation appeared in The Daily News on Wednesday, Greig-Powell said the V.I. Housing Authority gave her a key to a new apartment in Oswald Harris Court.
While intended as a temporary solution — the unit does not yet have a kitchen sink or cabinets, and as Greig-Powell is quick to point out, needs a thorough cleaning — the situation highlights the challenges facing the government and residents of public housing following two Category 5 hurricanes.
Greig-Powell said it’s clear to her that those who are well-connected are receiving better treatment from the government, while those who live alone in public housing are being left to fend for themselves.
“The governor would not bring his mother here to live. The senators would not bring their mother inside here to live. I am a mother, and I’m not living in here in this condition,” Greig-Powell said.
Representatives from the V.I. Housing Authority could not be reached for comment. Government spokesman Sam Topp did not respond to a voicemail Friday.
Government shelters seem like an obvious solution for those who have suddenly, and unexpectedly found themselves homeless in the wake of the storms. But the lack of privacy and close quarters is an uncomfortable and untenable situation for some, and others have expressed concern that mixing individuals from different parts of the island who may have long-standing animosity is a recipe for disaster.
The school buildings being used as shelters also eventually will need to be used for education again, and it’s unclear where individuals staying there will go.
Greig-Powell, who lives on Social Security and pays the minimum rent for public housing, wants to remain on-island and does not want to go to a shelter.
She said Friday that she appreciates the transfer to a new unit and understands that the circumstances at the moment are exceptional. But she wants to know, in writing, how long she’ll have to stay in the unfinished unit at OHC.
“I tell them yes, I will stay, but what time frame? ‘Well, we don’t know about that,’” Greig-Powell said she was told.
She also is concerned about a loose set plate on her front door lock, the dingy wash sink out back, dusty screens and other items, such as a missing clothesline.
She questioned how federal money to support public housing is being spent, given the long-standing maintenance and other issues at the housing complexes.
“Let us put aside the hurricane. Before the hurricane, what were you doing on the projects, and every day, housing workers are working. What you working doing?” Greig-Powell said.
Such issues with public housing are nothing new, and she’s been trying for three years to get such a transfer to a different unit, which only came after the hurricanes.
Maintenance workers at Oswald Harris Court said Friday they’re doing their best, but they’re understaffed and lacking necessary materials. They said they were told to make sure the plumbing in the unit was functional but leave other repairs for later.
The unit has electricity and running water, although the water pressure is still low, and while residents are responsible for purchasing and installing their own appliances and furniture and paying for utilities, Greig-Powell said the Housing Authority is not keeping to its lease requirements for cleanliness and maintenance.
Another resident in the complex also said a gut behind the unit has been stuffed with sewage and debris since long before the hurricanes hit, and conditions in the area are unsafe for children in particular.
“I don’t have a plan, but this is not for me. I prefer to live in the blownout place than to live here,” Greig-Powell said. “This is not livable for me, period.”
Greig-Powell acknowledged that many staying in shelters would prefer the unit at Oswald Harris Court, even in its current condition. But she’s worried she’ll be left there and forgotten without a sink, cabinets and other necessities.
“I will sign the paper when it is fixed, I will move in,” Greig-Powell said.