Another Houston Storm

Marlen Guerrero ’18 uses Hurricane Harvey relief work to help during COVID-19 pandemic

By Gabe SouzaPhotography by Callaghan O’Hare
May 1, 2020

Marlen Guerrero ’18, a Posse Scholar from Houston, Texas, began helping families long distance from Mayflower Hill after Hurricane Harvey hit her hometown. She continues that work, but recently saw her nonprofit pivot to address needs during the pandemic. She spoke with Colby Multimedia Producer Gabe Souza.

How did you move from hurricane relief to COVID?

I work for a local home-repair coordination system, Harvey Home Connect. We help local nonprofits connect to clients. COVID hit, and since we had this base of clients that we knew were some of the most vulnerable in Houston, we figured why not connect people to these resources? But also we’re measuring the need.

What did you find people need in the midst of the pandemic?

Financial assistance, food assistance, utilities. And we’re also seeing that people are feeling insecure about being at home all day. They’re feeling anxious, hopeless.

What do they tell you?

One of the top responses is that they are worried about their kids’ ability to catch up next year. Not having many resources when it comes to education, lower-income students have less access to the internet. And a lot of students here in Houston rely on reduced lunch at school. And so not having that meal subsidized by the school puts a strain on poor households.

What do you do about that?

We’re not the ones who are actually facing clients—we’re the ones connecting. Large cities and states have set up these COVID funds to help essential workers, undocumented families. We set up a Community Impact Survey and aim to capture the social and economic needs of households here in the Greater Houston region.

The hope is that the data will help large and small nonprofits to actually better target families and better distribute aid within the system. With Harvey there were a lot of resources available, but not a lot of people have the ability to connect them to the resources. We bridge that gap.

So COVID and hurricanes are linked?

We’re still a hurricane-centered organization and hurricane season is coming up. We started by using our list of clients. Let’s say they’re non-essential workers and they’re facing these risks of not being able to pay their rent, mortgage, etc. Well, then tack on a hurricane. That’s just going to be a complete mess, but we’ll have access to the information to say, ‘Hey, if you need help, here are some resources you can tap into.’”

Is that a concern right now?

Living in Houston, hurricanes are part of life. So in some way or another, the average Houstonian is always thinking about, you know, when’s the next flood, when’s the next storm, when’s the next natural disaster? People talk about how everything floods and yes, that’s horrible. But six months later, people still need help. It’s going to be three years [since Hurricane Harvey] and there’s still a lot of people who need help.

Marlen Guerrero ’18, a Posse Scholar from Houston, Texas

Three years. What type of help do they need?

With Harvey some homes got like six feet of water. Some homes were just completely destroyed, swept away. And if the people are low income and don’t have flood insurance or homeowner’s insurance, you know, basically their home is all they have. We’ve had about a thousand families, you know, somewhere along in the whole repair process.

What does that feel like when you’re able to see a family’s success story through completion?

It’s amazing. It’s really like a shining light at the end of the tunnel.

How did you get into this line of work?

Hurricane Harvey hit first semester my senior year at Colby, so I narrowly missed it. I was getting these messages from my parents saying, “Hey, you know, there’s a big storm coming. We’re thinking about evacuating.” I would turn on the TV to see news about this large storm coming towards Houston and seeing the aftermath—people stranded, carrying their belongings above their heads. And so I was thinking, what are ways I can help from afar? Because of my family background, some of my family members had issues with work, either employers were pressuring them to come in to work under dangerous conditions, or they were out of work. And so I was just like, that’s wrong.

But you were at Colby.

And a lot of frustration kind of pent up in me. And so I started getting more into hurricanes, even though I’m a biology and sociology double major. So even from my bio classes, at one point I did a report on how Hurricane Katrina affected herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians) in southeastern Louisiana. And so I was just crazy about hurricanes, either socially or biologically.

What do you mean, socially?

For a Jan Plan project, I was able to get connected to organizations here in Houston about who serves undocumented families. At the time Harvey hit, there was a proposed law here in Texas, the show-me-your-papers law. It essentially gave police officers the ability to act as immigration officials and ask for documentation that you’re a U.S. citizen or if you’re “legal.” And so when Harvey hit, people were scared. There were people in the coast region who wouldn’t leave because they were afraid to go through the checkpoints. That was one of the biggest questions people had when they were calling immigration hotlines: can I go to these shelters and not risk being detained? And so their frustration translated to the Jan Plan.

Marlen Guerrero ’18, a Posse Scholar from Houston, Texas

So this path started at Colby?

Yes. I had this experience with Professor [Michael] Donahue in the Economics Department and Professor [Betty] Sasaki in the Spanish Department. They had this joint venture with this nonprofit, a community organization in Milbridge, Maine, Downeast. That’s where I learned about migrants in rural Maine, doing a needs assessment, studying the community impact of Latinx immigrants there. And classes with Professor [Neil] Gross that highlighted the American class structure, how class plays into everyday life.

Funds that I got from the Goldfarb Center helped sponsor a community-organizing internship that I did in Chicago. And so all that helped me to be able to speak to potential clients in a way where they feel like they can trust me because they’re in a very vulnerable place. Lastly, former Sociology Post-doc Fellow Nicole Denier also heavily guided me in my Jan Plan idea, and she helped set me up for success.

So what does it mean to you to be able to help your own hometown?

It’s the best thing. I mean, when I was gearing up to graduate, I wanted to come back with the mission of helping people. I wanted to come back, not only for my family, but also to give back to the town that raised me. There’s this hashtag—Houston Strong. And it’s really a part of the culture here.

So that led you back to Houston?

This Hurricane Harvey background kind of helped me get an initial job with Harvey Connect. I spoke Spanish. We needed a Spanish speaker, which is great because I was like, yes, I get to help a community that isn’t traditionally the first served. Now I help manage a lot of the endeavors that we do. Additionally, I start social work grad school part time at the University of Houston in the fall.

So what’s next? What needs are you seeing with COVID?

Mental health is a big one. We’re glad that we’re seeing such a response to that, because our partners work with low-income communities, especially those of color. And traditionally, communities of color don’t talk about that. And so we’re planning to push counselling, push resources that help people feel less anxious about their situation, because not only are people having to be socially distant, but people have lost their jobs, people will have less food. And so you’re adding all these stresses, and mental health has become a huge need. And it usually gets overlooked.

Is it stressful for you as well?

Yeah, it’s a little stressful. But it’s worth it.