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Sep 20, 2017 | Paulette E. Martin

Hispanic Congregations Aid Flood Victims with Rent Assistance

Harvey is long gone, but many Houston residents are still struggling to bounce back. Some of the most vulnerable are people who have missed weeks of work and are now being threatened with eviction. The problem is so severe, that Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner called for flexibility and sensitivity from landlords.

“I urge landlords to show flexibility by waiving or delaying late fees for at least one month—and give [people] a grace period to help ease the financial burden,” Turner said during a press conference on Thursday, September 14.

The mayor’s response was in part due to pleas from area clergy including the Rev. Ed Gomez, vicar of St. Paul’s/ San Pablo. Once Harvey dissipated, protecting tenants rights became Gomez’s mission. 

San Pablo is located near Hobby Airport, an area which also flooded during the storm. After visiting some of the apartment complexes near the church, Gomez realized many of his members and other tenants faced a major hurdle. 

“They’re being charged daily late fees, threatened with court proceedings and legal fees,” Gomez said. “Some of these tenants are undocumented, they’re fearful, they don’t feel secured so they are scrambling.” Many were not able to work for several weeks because of flooded businesses, they lost their transportation to flood waters or they had lost their homes. 

"We are not going to tolerate anybody in this city being victimized because they may be poor, undocumented or may not speak the language," Turner told the media gathered at City Hall. He threatened to prosecute landlords who demanded September rent for uninhabitable apartments and said it was the “equivalent of theft.” 

The Diocese of Texas has assisted some tenants who were unable to pay their rent.

We have contacted the Hispanic communities of San Mateo, St. Peter’s, Pasadena and San Romero, churches whose members we know have been affected by Harvey, and we’ve become an immediate resource to contribute and helping them pay their rents,” Diocese of Texas Bishop Assistant Hector Monterroso said.

San Mateo, in southwest Houston is one of the Hispanic congregations most affected by Harvey. Its rector, the Rev. Janssen J. Gutierrez, his wife Mariely and two teenagers, lost everything in their ground floor apartment to flood waters. Today they are living on the second floor of their complex, ministering to parishioners and contending with insurance adjusters to repair the church building and offices. 

"The truth is that we lost everything. The first week was quite complicated. With everything that happened in the church, I had not focused on what was happening in my house,” Gutierrez said. Flood waters damaged the worship space, parish hall, offices, Sunday school classrooms and restrooms.

"An urgent need for us here at San Mateo is first to recover our spaces because we have nowhere to meet and that is important for our faith. We have an incredible challenge," Gutierrez said.

Christ Church Cathedral, Houston rented a huge tent under which the congregation will worship for the next months but they still need to address restroom facilities. During the worship services, one thing Gutierrez noticed is a lot more sadness.

“I see a lot of tears during the worship,” Gutierrez said. “Some feel they have lost their homes and their church.” 

Gutierrez quickly formed a team to identify needs in the community, some of which include rent assistance. 

“We thank God for the experience. God’s plans are always perfect,” Mariely said with optimism. She added that losing everything allowed her and her husband to connect more directly with those who have experienced the same losses.

When you tell a flood victim that you understand their pain because you also have lost everything, they can relate and open up more,” she added.

In the meantime, Gutierrez said he hopes San Mateo is back to a new normal in six months but in truth, it will take longer for parishioners to recover from the historic flooding both physically and emotionally.