Nearly 1,800 Puerto Ricans who survived Hurricane Maria will be forced to move out Sunday from hotels on the island and the US mainland, where they’ve lived rent-free on assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“After 10 months of providing emergency shelter through Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA), FEMA is ending the program on June 30 for Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria survivors,” the agency said in a statement. “Intended to provide emergency shelter, TSA is a temporary solution that bridges survivors into more permanent options.”
Designed to be used for about two weeks, the program had been extended repeatedly. FEMA spent more than $432 million on lodging for tens of thousands of hurricane survivors who were left with no power or running water, damaged or destroyed homes and no school for their children, according to the agency.
“First, there was the trauma of the hurricane,” said Liz Cruz, who has been staying in a Manhattan hotel with her husband and three children since early December.
“Then we had the trauma of leaving home and spending months in a small room in New York. Now comes this trauma.”
‘Nowhere to go’
In New York, officials this week estimated that between 600 and 700 Puerto Ricans who fled the island will end up in city shelters for homeless families in the coming days.
“The Trump administration abandoned the people of Puerto Rico,” said Jaclyn Rothenberg, a spokeswoman for Mayor Bill de Blasio.
“Our mayor will not. We will shelter our fellow US citizens, and we will do all we can to help them to get back on their feet.”
From New York to Florida, where officials estimate some 400 families will lose hotel vouchers this weekend, evacuees who have been cooking makeshift meals in microwaves, doing homework in hotel lobbies and learning the ways of life on the mainland now face further uncertainty.
“They have nowhere to go,” Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida said Thursday on the Senate floor. “This decision to stop providing assistance to these families has many of them very scared. They’re scrambling to try to figure out what they’re going to do to find an affordable place. We’ve reached out to churches. We’ve reached out to other charitable organizations.”
Nelson, who was unsuccessful in a last-minute bid to extend Transitional Sheltering Assistance housing for hurricane survivors on Thursday, said many families will end up sleeping in cars or homeless shelters come Sunday.
“Some of them have lost everything because of these storms,” Nelson said. “Too many are still unable to find work or to find affordable housing. … For many of them, the only thing that they have is the help that FEMA is providing.”
‘Mami, are we going to be safe?’
Nearly 1,800 Puerto Rican families were checked into hotels under the FEMA program this week, agency spokesman Juan Rosado-Reynés said in a statement.
There were 1,229 staying in hotels and motels on the mainland and 534 in Puerto Rico, according to FEMA.
“We continue working closely with disaster survivors to connect them with the most appropriate housing resources to meet their disaster-related needs,” the FEMA statement said.
In late January, four months after the devastating September storm, more than 3,000 displaced Puerto Ricans were living in hotels across 40 states, according to FEMA. Their eligibility for transitional housing was re-evaluated every 30 days. The agency has said the program is meant to provide emergency housing in the immediate aftermath of a disaster.
Participants were ineligible for FEMA hotel vouchers if their homes in Puerto Rico were found to be livable after inspection, or if FEMA found they had other viable housing options, such as friends they could live with, among other requirements, according to agency officials.
In New York, officials said 108 families who will lose their FEMA housing assistance Saturday will be connected “via Catholic Charities … to housing, social services, and educational supports.” The average household includes three people.
Another 134 Puerto Rican families who did not qualify for FEMA assistance are applying for shelter under the city’s Department of Homeless Services.
“Look, shelter is not our first preferred option, but it’s what we can offer,” said Rothenberg, the mayoral spokeswoman. “Hopefully if these people go through the process, they’ll be eligible to get back on their feet here in New York City. The mayor is not going to leave these people behind.”
Milagros Bosse, 32, a Marine Corps veteran who arrived in New York in December with her four young children, checked out of a Manhattan hotel Friday and planned to move into a former boutique hotel now used as a shelter for homeless families.
“The children ask, ‘Now we’re going somewhere else?’ ” said Bosse, who has been supporting her family on unemployment benefits that run out at the end of next month. “They keep asking, ‘Mami, are we going to be safe? Are we going to have a refrigerator?'”
She said she has received numerous calls and emails from FEMA reminding her the agency will not pay for the hotel after Saturday.
“I’m at the point now where all I want to do is cry,” she said. “I can’t. I have four angels who look at me every day and ask, ‘Mami, are we going to be OK?’ With a straight face, I look at them and say we’re going to be fine. I have tears in my eyes, but I can’t break down because of them.”
When they arrived at the former boutique hotel now housing homeless families, Bosse said no rooms were available. They were taken instead to Times Square hotel, where she said the walls were dirty. There was a hole in a bathroom wall.
She finally broke down.
“The kids and I cried,” Bosse said. “They have begged me to please go back to the FEMA hotel, that they will behave better … and I had to look into their eyes and say, ‘I am sorry but we cannot go back there because our assistance with FEMA has ended.’ “