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Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria face end of FEMA housing aid

Aid for temporary sheltering in hotels will run out for some starting this Friday.

Deborah Oquendo, 42, prepare breakfast for her and her 10-month-old daughter Genesis Rivera at the hotel were they are staying in Orlando, Florida on December 1, 2017.
Ricardo Arduengo/AFP/Getty Images

Across the country, newly arrived citizens from Puerto Rico, who left their homes due to the damage and post-storm blackouts, have struggled to find housing. In Central Florida alone, more than 300,000 have arrived, challenging municipalities and nonprofits to provide shelter in an already crowded market.

But that challenge may get tougher starting this Friday, February 16, when a FEMA program to temporarily shelter new arrivals in hotels will begin to expire for many of those who migrated a few months ago.

“Evacuees in Florida face a tragic Valentine’s Day if the FEMA program ends and hundreds of families need to leave those hotels,” says Democratic Congressman Darren Soto, a Puerto Rican whose district in central Florida covers areas where many new arrivals have settled.

According to federal officials quoted in the New York Times, nearly 4,000 families remain in hotels as part of FEMA’s transitional sheltering assistance program. Roughly 1,500 of those families are in Florida.

With a third of the island still without power, says Soto, he’s pushing FEMA to extend eligibility for the program through the rest of the school year, and help provide additional rental assistance to families. This morning, he released a letter, co-signed by Representatives from both parties, asking FEMA to help the Puerto Rican families who may soon be displaced, and provide direct assistance to those in need.

“With the program ending, we then have to argue for individual cases, and it becomes more cumbersome and people fall through the cracks,” Rep. Soto said.

FEMA says many of the stays will be extended through March 20, though families can appeal, and the program could be extended if Puerto Rican officials feel it’s necessary.

“This is a bridge to other longer-term solutions,” William Booher, a FEMA spokesman, told the New York Times. “Survivors are responsible for their own recovery and to actively look for permanent housing solutions.”

According to Sarah Mickelson, the director of public policy for the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, the hotel solution isn’t exactly ideal. Families with limited budgets face more challenges conserving limited funds without access to a kitchen, and it’s not a great long-term housing solution.

But while the thousands in FEMA hotels would be better served by long-term housing assistance, it’s better than nothing. And cutting it off before people can be settled—and not setting up the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, used to provide long-term housing support—goes against precedent set by other recent responses to similar natural disasters.

“Why is FEMA unlearning the lessons from Katrina and other storms?” she says. “These programs were used successfully after Sandy, Ike, Gustav. It’s been used successfully many times, but for some reason, this time around, FEMA isn’t interested in using this as a solution.”

Mickelson says FEMA wants to transfer funding responsibility to the states, which would be fine, if not for huge delays her and other advocates have noticed providing support at the state level. Partner organizations in Texas and California have told her that people don’t have many options, and that “the signs were all there that long-term housing solutions were needed.”

In Connecticut, FEMA said it would extend funding earlier this year, but then abruptly reversed its decision, leaving dozens of families without housing assistance. In response, the Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition, comprised of more than 200 organizations including the NLIHC, sent a letter to FEMA expressing disappointment in the decision.