Federal judge denies request to extend housing assistance for Puerto Rican evacuees

click to enlarge A woman sits on a street with homes damaged by hurricane Maria in La Perla, San Juan in Puerto Rico on Aug 10 2018. - Photo by Joey Roulette
Photo by Joey Roulette
A woman sits on a street with homes damaged by hurricane Maria in La Perla, San Juan in Puerto Rico on Aug 10 2018.
A federal judge from Massachusetts denied a motion Thursday to extend government housing assistance for hundreds of Hurricane María evacuees from Puerto Rico, ending a program intended to put families who lost homes in the storm back on their feet.

Hundreds of evacuees in Florida are receiving the aid under FEMA's  Transitional Shelter Assistance Program, which covers the cost of lodging in certain motels. Hundreds of Puerto Rican families who evacuated to Florida have been using the program in Kissimmee and Orlando hotels. 

The order, which came Thursday morning from Judge Timothy Hillman, gives Puerto Rican evacuees two weeks to find housing alternatives with a final move-out date of Sept. 14. The housing program has received several court-ordered extensions since June as a result of legal action brought on by a handful of advocacy groups, including the LatinoJustice Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund.

"I strongly urge the parties to work together to find temporary housing, or other assistance to the plaintiffs and other members of the class prior to that date," Hillman said in the order.

Scrubbing federal housing assistance that "approximately 2,000 disaster survivors" rely on reveals FEMA's "negligent and discriminatory treatment of, and response to, Hurricane Maria survivors," LatinoJustice said in a press release. FEMA has previously said it does not comment on pending litigation.

"We are still looking into possible legal action as a result of this ruling," Christiaan Perez, a spokesperson for one of the advocacy groups, said in an email. Natasha Bannan, associate counsel at LatinoJustice and the managing attorney for this case, said in a phone call Thursday afternoon that it's too early to say specifically what that legal action will be.

The Puerto Rican government revised the official death toll for hurricane Maria to 2,975 earlier this week after holding for months a count of 64, a number many survivors and civil rights groups said was a gross underestimation. The current number of nearly 3,000 lives is still an estimation and not an official list of individual's names, the island's governor, Ricardo Rossello, told CNN.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, a democrat whose district includes Puerto Ricans facing eviction, slammed President Trump's response to the disaster in a statement following Thursday's order denying a TSA extension. “This is very disappointing news. However, the real issue is Trump’s failure to timely and adequately respond and fund disaster relief for Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria," Soto said.

"We will continue to push for Congress to approve the Disaster Housing Assistance Program to provide longer term housing. In the meantime, our office will work with all local Puerto Rican evacuees to place them in homes and connect them with other essential services between now and September 14.”

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