Oscar Rivera, 53, is a diabetic who also faced a cancer diagnosis and cares for his 78 year-old mother, who suffers from Alzheimer's.
Until February, Rivera, who lives in Bayamón, received $ 260 per month through the Nutrition Assistance Program (PAN, Spanish acronym). But starting this month, he will only receive $ 112.
"I inject myself with insulin four times a day. I have to take 18 pills every day, and my mom is suffering the first signs of Alzheimer's and I have to take care of her too. It's not easy," said Rivera, while waiting for his turn at the Department of Family Affairs in Bayamón.
1.35 PAN participants have seen their benefit reduced after the $1,27 billion in nutrition assistance granted to Puerto Rico -to address the emergency caused by Hurricane María- have run out last Thursday.
Once these funds have run out and with another $600 million package waiting for Congress approval, PAN participants are starting to feel the effects of this sudden blow, even though they knew that the increase in their checks was temporary.
Although the House approved a $ 600 million allocation for the program, the proposal has not advanced in the Senate.
"I´ ll try to buy basic supplies. I will buy rice and the most essential things for my diet. If I could work, I would go to work, but I can’t," said Rivera, who is also a participant of the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
Puerto Ricans want to leave
Ada Encarnación said that anywhere she goes, she hears the same: "I'm leaving, I'm leaving."
Encarnación was almost in tears when she spoke about how the economic crisis –that became even worse for those who lost their jobs after the hurricane- is pushing many Puerto Ricans out of the island in search for better opportunities.
"Honestly, what I hear among the people is “I'm leaving, I'm leaving, I'm leaving” ... we love our island, but we feel the pain," she said.
For her, cuts to PAN checks in another factor that people ponder when they consider leaving the island.
Encarnación´s mother, Miriam Rivera (74) is a PAN participant.
"I just came here to make an appointment for my mom and I was making the arrangements and then I realized that she her checked was reduced, compared to what she usually receives,” she explained.
Encarnación said that before the hurricane, her mother received $ 154 and that now she will get $134. "I will have to help her a little bit more, because she only receives $ 250 from Social Security plus $ 134 (from PAN), that is not enough to get by," she remarked.
Vicenta Santiago and her husband, 82, received $ 400 per month until last February.
The effects of the reduction, she said, will be strong. "We have to pay for water, electricity, telephone, it's a lot. My old man (her husband) does not work, because he receives Social Security benefits and I do too, but that is not enough," she said.
"I'll have to use less water, less electricity, you know. The phone... I will see if I cancel the service, because I'm the one who pays for it," she said.
Santiago receives $ 200 from Social Security, that she uses to pay for their medical plan. Her husband, who receives $ 600, pays for basic services and a loan. "The other day I called my brother-in-law to see if he could lend me $ 100 ... because we don’t have enough," said the 71-year-old woman.
She hoped - like many others did - that the rise in the checks would last for an additional period, "because everything is so expensive."
“This is what we are going to eat from now on,” said Wilma González who was holding a bag of fried cheese-flavored snacks.
"If we generalize, what you can eat is flour, a pound of bread, which is not very expensive and it can feed many at home. But you cannot eat a steak, a steak every day ... sausages and when they are 10 for $ 5, " she said.
González, who has a job and is the mother of a teenager, saw her PAN check reduced by 50 percent.
"You want to give (your child) something healthier and I work, but imagine those families that do not have an income, who only depend on vouchers. They will not be able to afford it, it´s going to be really uphill for them,” González warned.
"It is not that they don’t have to reduce them, but they have to do it case-by-case ...", she insisted.
Heidi Vega, 38, did not know how much her PAN check will be reduced.
Vega works at an ice plant and once she lost the benefit because her income was higher than PAN eligibility standards.
"It would be a big problem for me. I have debts and other things and what I make is not enough to pay for everything. You lost the assistance because you work and then I don’t understand what’s the point," she said.