Hurricane Maria left him homeless and desperate to find shelter for his family. Three days after the storm, the 27-year-old father pitched a tent at a basketball court located in front of one the most storied and beautiful beaches on the island, the famed Balneario Monserrate in the seaside town of Luquillo. It was the only place the native of Rio Grande said he felt safe enough for his wife Claritza and five-year-old son, Yamil. And it was also within walking distance to his job at one of the  kiosks located on Route 3 in Luquillo. A week later, another couple arrived with their tent, and within two weeks, more arrived. By December, three months after the storm, there were thirteen families, including a two-year-old girl, a five-year-old boy, two teenagers, and a grandmother all left homeless by the monster storm.

The popular beachside kioskos were not open for business, including the one he worked in. But Zdenek, left unemployed by the storm, wanted to be close by so as soon as the restaurant-bar opened, he could start working. Although the hurricane destroyed his material possessions, the waiter and bartender said the storm gave him what he deems a most beautiful gift–a new family. The group christened itself, Comunidad La Fe.

“We did not know each other before the storm, now everyone here feels like family.”

In fact, the bond Zdenek says he has with the homeless families is deeper than his own blood. He says they have rituals that most families with homes would dream about.

“We have coffee with each other in the mornings, dinner as a group in the evenings. We take turns preparing the meals. At 9 p.m. we read the bible together, and at 9:30 p.m., each night, a trumpet player who plays with well-known bands around the island, plays a song. Two churches have come to offer servicios and pray with us.”

The group created a makeshift kitchen, bought a portable toilet, and plan to celebrate Christmas together. When we visited them, the Holidays were three weeks away and someone donated a small plastic Christmas tree.

It gets rough when it rains he says. They have to pack their tents, their plastic Christmas tree, and place all their belongings, which is not much, on the bleachers, and wait until the rains stops. A family of pigeons, which used the court as their home and also shat all over it, still comes to do their business.

According to Zdenek, who says he is shy and was pushed to become the official spokesperson of the group, the group feels like they don’t have much choice but to stay living in tents. Leaving the island to a hotel somewhere in the US is not an option for them.

Hiding in plain sight along the main road on the northern coast of the island between San Juan and Fajardo was a group of homeless hurricane survivors living under a basketball court and no one in any official capacity– press, FEMA, local, national or Federal government officials– went to check in on them for months he says. On day fifty-four, a reporter from Telemundo arrived. Three days after the story aired, the mayor of the town of Luquillo, a walking distance from the homeless tents, finally showed up.

They were offered shelter–hotels in the US, or some, an apartment in a housing project– but they all relented. By then, they were a family and they wanted to remain close to home and each other.

“If you are going to pay a hotel bill while we get back on our feet, why not pay rent on one of the many abandoned houses on the island?” They planned to stay there until they had saved enough to rebuild.

A few weeks into their stay a woman arrived and seeing that they had water bottles, bags of rice, and canned foods– beans, sauce, meats–she offered them all she had– an inheritance.

“A stranger came in and dropped off three boxes of costume jewelry. She told us it was her only inheritance, and it was worth $150,000. She told us to sell it so that we could get on our feet again. She said wanted to remain anonymous. She said it was all she had and she wanted us to have it. Hurricane Maria brought out a lot of beauty in many people.”

Words: Sandra Guzmán

Photos: Sandra Guzman & Rebecca Torres