By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
Many Puerto Ricans who fled to Central Florida following Hurricane Maria have found jobs and apartments, but some are still living in motels paid for by federal funds for emergency temporary shelter.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency was forced this week to extended financial support to these Puerto Ricans still struggling to get on their feet since. A federal judge has extended the deadline to July 23.
The political and legal wrangling about how to help reached new heights with the latest extension of Temporary Shelter Assistance program, or TSA.
A federal judge on Saturday ordered FEMA to extend the hotel voucher program for Puerto Ricans, which the agency had planned to end on Sunday.
The ruling was prompted by a lawsuit filed in Massachusetts by the advocacy organizations LatinoJustice and Vamos4PR. They are suing FEMA to allow families to stay under the TSA program for at least six more months, and for FEMA to review the cases of people who they believe have particular and special needs.
FEMA declined to comment on the lawsuit but confirmed it was working to comply with the order. But the agency announced that it also 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, while many Puerto Rican families have been able to find apartments or decided to return to Puerto Rico, there is a smaller group facing homelessness on the mainland. In his ruling, U.S. District Judge Leo Sorokin wrote that the end of the TSA program would have “possible human consequences” and would “drain on other public resources.” However, the sudden influx of storm evacuees in Osceola County has strained local resources since shortly after the storm hit. The Osceola County School District, which absorbed upwards of 1,500 school-age children from Puerto Rico during the 2017-18 school year, is just one example.
But 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.
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 FEMA is handling hurricane recovery both on and off the island.
For decades, Puerto Ricans have been moving to Central Florida and investing in the community. Kissimmee is home to one of the region’s largest Puerto Rican enclaves and has a population that’s 60 percent Hispanic.