'We Have Nowhere Else to Go': Shelters Closing to Displaced Puerto Ricans

by | April 20, 2018

By Kate Santich

Hundreds of displaced Puerto Rican families living in Florida hotels since Hurricane Maria devastated the island could be left homeless by the end of the week, federal lawmakers said Wednesday as they pleaded with FEMA to extend its temporary shelter program.

Roughly 600 families statewide _ including 180 families in Osceola alone _ believed their FEMA hotel voucher program had been extended until May 14, the lawmakers said. But early this week, the evacuees began receiving notice that their eligibility would end after Friday, setting off panicked pleas to politicians and advocates.

"These (last) three days, my mind is going crazy," said Lizbeth Cruz Lopez, 48, who is living with her two grown children at a Super 8 hotel in Kissimmee. Although they have finally saved enough to rent a home, they can't move in before the end of the month, at the earliest.

"I don't know what we're going to do. We have nowhere else to go," she said.

FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues said the families should not have been surprised by the latest notice because they would have been given a "check-out" date when they moved into the hotel. The agency has extended the overall transitional shelter program several times already, but he said FEMA makes a point of calling each family or individual five to seven days before the check-out date as a reminder.

"There is maybe a little bit of confusion," Llargues said. "They should have known."

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., whose office has been flooded with worried calls, declared the situation "unacceptable" _ especially for families whose lives had already been uprooted by the storm, which hit in September. Soto joined eight other Florida congressional representatives in sending a letter Wednesday to Brock Long, administrator of the Federal Emergency Management Association, and Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rossello to continue the hotel voucher program at least into June.

Florida Sens. Bill Nelson, a Democrat, and Republican Marco Rubio signed as well.

"At a minimum, the deadline for TSA (Transitional Shelter Assistance) should coincide with the end of the school year for mainland states," the lawmakers wrote. "After Hurricane Maria devastated the island, more than 10,000 students from Puerto Rico enrolled in Florida schools. These children have already had their lives and educational experiences disrupted by a devastating storm and deserve the opportunity to complete their school year."

By late Wednesday, Rossello responded with his own request to FEMA for an extension.

"There continues to be a lack of available housing solutions for many of our displaced residents due to the magnitude of the hurricanes and the lack of alternative resources," the island's governor wrote.

FEMA's transitional shelter program pays hotel owners, usually at a discount, to provide rooms to displaced victims of a storm. Once FEMA decides a family is no longer eligible _ either because the family's home has been repaired and declared livable or because enough time has passed _ the TSA benefits end, and hotel owners will often evict the families from their rooms.

Llargues noted that the program is not meant to provide indefinite support, but merely to help people get back on their feet after a disaster.

However, the scope of Maria's devastation and the lack of affordable housing in Central Florida and elsewhere have made recovery especially difficult.

"I can't imagine the anxiety these families are going through," said Mary Lee Downey, executive director of Kissimmee's Community Hope Center, which has been working with the displaced families to find housing. "We don't have the money to pay hotel bills for all of them after Friday, so what are they supposed to do _ camp along (U.S. Highway) 192? They can't even do that because we have an ordinance against it."

Carlos Mercader, executive director of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration, said if FEMA fails to extend the program, displaced students will be deprived of their housing and possibly their education as well.

"It is vital that FEMA approve this request immediately so that countless Puerto Rican families, who have lost everything as a result of this catastrophic disaster, are not once again uprooted in a chaotic fashion," he said.

(c)2018 The Orlando Sentinel (Orlando, Fla.)