UPDATE: Aug. 30 ― A federal judge ruled Thursday to end FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program, through which more than 2,000 displaced Puerto Ricans have been living in hotels on the U.S. mainland.
Families still in hotels must check out by Sept. 14. In the ruling, the judge wrote: “I strongly urge the parties to work together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the [evacuees] prior to that date.”
Since fleeing her native Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria tore through her roof and cut off her power last fall, Myrna Reyes has been staying in a government-subsidized hotel in New York. But the federal funds paying for that housing are scheduled to stop on Aug. 31, stranding the 62-year-old, who suffers from diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.
“It’s terrible,” she told HuffPost in Spanish this week as the deadline approached. “I can’t sleep, I can’t eat ― it’s the uncertainty.”
Reyes is one of 2,436 displaced Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland still in hotels paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA)’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance program. In response to a lawsuit from the advocacy group Latino Justice, a federal judge has repeatedly extended the program, most recently through the end of August.
That judge is expected to weigh in yet again sometime in the next week about whether the program should be extended once again.
If the program isn’t extended, displaced Puerto Ricans face grim options: accept the government’s offer to pay for a ticket back to Puerto Rico, or stay in the U.S. mainland and face possible homelessness.
“It’s a choice between the lesser of two evils,” said Peter Gudaitis, executive director of nonprofit New York Disaster Interfaith Services, which has been helping Maria evacuees. “Stay here and be homeless, or move to Puerto Rico and be unemployed or have no home and struggle there.”
Many relying on FEMA’s housing funds are in precarious financial situations, Gudaitis said. Some have medical conditions, others have young children and haven’t been able to afford daycare, keeping them from finding a job. Even evacuees who have found work on the mainland struggle to save enough for a security deposit and first and last month’s rent.
Many, like Reyes, don’t have family or friends who can take them in, and may be forced into the local shelter system, which is already strained to capacity.
“What am I going to do?” asked Reyes. “They can’t leave us in the street.”
When Hurricane Maria hit last September, Reyes was living by herself in a rented apartment. The storm damaged her roof, flooded her apartment and cut off power. She has asthma, and the heat combined with no working fans or air conditioners made it impossible to sleep. She often felt like she couldn’t breathe.
She was getting desperate, so she sold her car and bought a flight to New York. There, local nonprofits helped connect her to the FEMA housing program. She’s been able to attend doctor’s appointments nearby three to four times a week and get the medical attention she needs.
But the FEMA program’s repeated deadlines and extensions have stressed her out. The agency first planned to stop paying for hotels for evacuees in April, before extending the deadline to June 30. Then a court ruling extended it to July 5. Then July 23. Then Aug. 6. Now it’s set for Aug. 31.
The Latino Justice lawsuit alleges that FEMA is ending the program without a plan to transition the evacuees to longer-term housing, even though returning home is “not a viable option” for many displaced Puerto Ricans.
FEMA said in a statement that it has been “working to comply” with the order extending the deadline to Aug. 31. But it “will not comment on pending litigation” beyond that, the agency said.
Now is the worst possible time to push Puerto Rican hurricane survivors out of the program, Reyes said ― because it’s hurricane season again. Experts say the island’s recovery process will take years. Repeated power outages still plague the island, and the health care system has not fully recovered.
“You tell me in what world are they going to send us back there?” she asked.
“I can’t sleep, I can’t eat ― it’s the uncertainty.”
Roughly 135,000 Puerto Ricans fled to the U.S. mainland after Maria, according to the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. The highest concentration of evacuees is in Florida, followed by Massachusetts and New York.
Of the nearly 2,500 displaced Puerto Ricans on the U.S. mainland still in hotels funded by FEMA, 30 families are in New York City. Half have told Gudaitis’ group that they plan to move in with family if the program ends, while the rest expect to move into the city’s shelter system.
“Puerto Rican evacuees are not chronically homeless. They’re here for safety reasons,” Gudaitis said, noting that many of those who evacuated the island were elderly people, families with kids, or people who had lost jobs on the island, which was already struggling economically before the storm. “Until things improve in Puerto Rico, most of these families are going to stay here.”
Meanwhile, FEMA has either denied or still not approved housing aid for thousands of Puerto Ricans on the island who submitted applications for help fixing storm-ravaged homes, NBC reported last month.
The Trump administration has been criticized for its slow and uneven response to Maria compared to disasters on the mainland. A March report in Politico showed the Trump administration had sent far more support to Texas after Hurricane Harvey last year than it did to Puerto Rico, both in terms of the speed and size of assistance.
Puerto Rican Gov. Ricardo Rosselló and more than a dozen members of Congress have called for FEMA to further assist displaced Puerto Ricans by implementing the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which funds longer-term housing for disaster survivors.
But Gudaitis criticized FEMA’s current hotel program as “the biggest waste of money on the planet.” The price of a couple months in a New York City hotel is equivalent to a year’s worth of rent, he said, and the government’s money would be better spent on longer-term housing.
In October, Congress approved about $36 billion in aid for disaster relief for Puerto Rico, Texas, and states struck by last year’s wildfires. Congress also allocated around $15 billion to Maria recovery in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands earlier this year, but the total relief amounts to much less than the estimated $95 billion in damages Puerto Rico suffered, Rosselló has said.
Reyes worries about having to move into New York City’s shelter system at the end of the month. She already did it for one night last month, before she got word that the hotel program had been extended. Her medical conditions force her to use the restroom several times per night, but the toilet in her room didn’t work ― and no one came to fix it until the next day. The food at the shelter was also high in sodium and bad for her blood pressure.
“We’re supposed to be U.S. citizens,” Reyes said. “It’s not that I need a fancy hotel ― I’m just asking for a place with dignity.”