In the days after Hurricane Maria stuck Puerto Rico, many of the capital’s longtime homeless emerged from hiding with nowhere to go in a city wrecked by winds and rain.
Carlos Prado and a few others found refuge on a tiny spit of sand overlooking the picturesque Condado Lagoon, between Old San Juan and the tourist hub of Condado.
More drifters soon arrived. Local media did stories on them. Relief organizations and San Juan residents began dropping off supplies. And more than a month after the storm, the homeless encampment has mushroomed into a full-fledged, if tiny, community complete with nightly domino games and nonstop cookouts.
A donated blue tarp, stretched over planks of wood and lashed to tree branches, protects a row of mattresses on the sand. In makeshift cabinets are rows and rows of canned beans, tomatoes, tuna, packages of crackers, toilet paper and bottled water. They’ve even got a line of donated plastic coolers.
Under the shadow of the well-heeled high-rise apartments of the Miramar neighborhood, Prado is now staying in a real camping tent. He covered it in mosquito netting and another tarp.
“A lot of us got kicked out of the shelter. We all know each other from the streets. We're family here,” he said, sucking on a cigarette as he cooked up a meal of sausage, rice and beans in cast-iron pots on a fire.
When the hurricane hit the island Sept. 20, it worsened the homeless problem on an island mired in a years-long economic slump, with an unemployment rate of nearly 12 percent and an avalanche of foreclosures in recent years. According to the U.S. Housing and Urban Development, there were more than 4,400 homeless people in 2016, almost a 10 percent increase from six years earlier.
That includes people like Prado, a trained cook who became a tile setter and then lost that job in the downturn. “I’m on the streets because I couldn’t find work,” he said.
He was joined by Israel Vilá, 40, who was born in Puerto Rico, lived briefly in Wisconsin and returned to the streets, collecting cans to make money to eat. The encampment has temporarily solved that issue.
Last Tuesday, as he ate a plastic tub of pudding as he sat in a lawn chair on the sand.
“This is my ranchito,” Vilá said Tuesday, as he ate plastic tub of pudding while sitting in a lawn chair on the sand.
Before the storm, he slept in storefronts. So far, authorities haven’t bothered them in their new digs. “The view is beautiful. It’s like a mansion,” Vilá said. “But we can’t live like this forever.”