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Federal judge extends FEMA hotel funds for displaced Puerto Ricans

Posted on Thursday, August 9, 2018 at 8:00 am

By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
The Federal Emergency Management Agency has officially ended the Temporary Shelter Assistance program for survivors of hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, but a federal court is keeping the assistance flowing.
For now.
U.S. District Judge Timothy Hillman in Worcester, Mass., last week extended, until Aug. 31, an order preventing the eviction of hundreds of Puerto Rican families who fled the hurricane-ravaged island in 2017 and have been living in motels in Florida and across the U.S. 
Hillman’s decision extended a previously-imposed temporary restraining order that allowed the families to remain in hotels only until Aug. 7. The judge made the ruling after hearing arguments over a longer-term injunction that would bar the federal government from cutting off housing assistance.
FEMA had planned to end the assistance program on June 30.
The unfolding federal case has so far yielded three rulings in less than a month that have temporarily extended hotel stays for displaced Hurricane Maria survivors from Puerto Rico. 
The extension gives the government time to respond to new arguments raised by lawyers representing evacuees in a proposed class-action lawsuit challenging FEMA’s response. 
About 1,000 families displaced by Maria are currently receiving Temporary Shelter Assistance funds for hotel lodging from FEMA, according to Reuters. The TSA program has helped more than 7,000 families in all, FEMA told the news agency.
FEMA officials have not commented on the back-and-forth lawsuit all summer. But in FEMA’s press release announcing the end of the TSA funds for survivors of the three hurricanes the agency touted its longer-term solutions for the people still down-and-out.
“TSA is a temporary solution that bridges survivors into more permanent options. To date, FEMA has spent more than $432 million on survivor lodging for TSA, and provided rental assistance to more than 25,000 TSA participant families to help them find permanent housing solutions, the agency said.
“FEMA and its partners have conducted outreach on multiple occasions and a total of 97 percent of those enrolled in the program have successfully transitioned to more permanent housing. Federal, state, and voluntary organization partners will continue to provide assistance through disaster case management to those who still require long-term solutions.”
The agency also announced this summer that it has extended the Transportation Assistance program to help survivors get back to Puerto Rico until Aug. 30. It covers the cost of flights and luggage fees.
To be eligible for transportation back to Puerto Rico, a survivor’s primary residence before the storms must have been on the island, and he or she must have been displaced from that residence. Survivors must also have been checked into a TSA-participating hotel on May 3.
Meanwhile, advocates for Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm and still living in motels contend that extenuating circumstances necessitate government assistance.
Thousands from the island came to the U.S. mainland after Hurricane Maria decimated the island last September. Because the island is a U.S. territory, its residents are U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for help from FEMA.
They also say FEMA is denying due process by cutting the temporary shelter funds.
Still, financially strapped families living in motels is nothing new in Osceola County.
The lack of affordable housing and high-paying jobs here has for years taken a toll on working-class residents, particularly those without savings and good credit.
Local politicians and community leaders have been trying to bridge the gap.
Hundreds of millions in public funds have been invested in attracting high-tech, high-wage companies to the area and the county broke ground on its first affordable housing project last year.