Federal judge temporarily bars FEMA from ending shelter aid for Puerto Rican evacuees

click to enlarge Federal judge temporarily bars FEMA from ending shelter aid for Puerto Rican evacuees
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
This story has been updated with FEMA's latest statement.

A federal judge in Massachusetts temporarily barred FEMA from ending a sheltering assistance program that is providing hotel vouchers for hundreds of Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane María.

The temporary restraining order granted by U.S. District Judge Leo T. Sorokin late Saturday night came as many Puerto Rican evacuees prepared to leave hotel rooms that FEMA would no longer pay for past June 30. Sorokin instructed FEMA to continue paying for hotel vouchers until at least midnight on July 3, which would let families stay until checkout time on July 4. FEMA later announced it would extend the program until July 5 to comply with the court order.

"The irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is obvious and overwhelming – tomorrow morning they will be evicted and homeless since by definition each plaintiff's home was rendered uninhabitable by the hurricane in Puerto Rico," Sorokin wrote in his ruling.

The judge's decision was in response to a lawsuit filed Saturday by the civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF to block the federal agency's actions.

"There is no question that FEMA’s response to Puerto Ricans after Hurricane Maria has been woefully inadequate and unlike responses to other natural disasters experienced in the U.S.," said Kira Romero-Craft, managing attorney over LatinoJustice's Southeast office, in a statement.

The complaint accuses FEMA of "arbitrarily, capriciously and unlawfully" deciding to cut off aid to the Transitional Shelter Assistance program (TSA) for Puerto Rican evacuees on June 30. For months, the program has provided hotel vouchers for evacuated families who fled the catastrophic damage left on the island by the September hurricane.

Nine months after María, more than 1,200 households remain on hotel vouchers across the continental U.S., according to the latest numbers from FEMA. Most of them are living in Florida – close to 600 families are staying in hotels across the state, with the majority in Orange and Osceola Counties.

After a series of hard-fought extensions, FEMA announced on May 3 that it would extend the TSA program for Puerto Rican evacuees one last time and set the June 30 deadline. The federal agency also offered free plane tickets back to Puerto Rico for anyone who wanted to go home. As of Thursday, 81 families were flown back to the island and 107 other families have booked flights, according to FEMA.

But advocates argued the island is still recovering from the destruction inflicted by María – many homes remain inhospitable, the electricity is unreliable and 263 schools across the U.S. territory have closed. Ending the TSA program could leave many families homeless, especially in Central Florida where affordable housing is hard to find.

"FEMA’s refusal to extend TSA is without any plan for transitioning into longer-term housing some 2,000 individuals who have already faced severe trauma and lost most, if not all, of their belongings, their homes and their jobs," the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for Massachusetts says. "For plaintiffs and many other TSA evacuees, especially the poor, elderly and sick, returning to their homes (or what is left of their homes) in Puerto Rico is not a viable option."

Orlando Weekly reached out to FEMA for a comment but did not receive an immediate response. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of seven plaintiffs, including three evacuees staying in Central Florida hotels.

Attorneys argued that there were several ways in which FEMA could ensure that Puerto Rican evacuees were not left homeless, including by activating the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP). FEMA denied Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló's request to activate the program, which provides rent to eligible families to help pay for temporary housing for up to 18 months.

FEMA officials have previously said that "DHAP is not necessary to house displaced disaster survivors" because of other available housing programs from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that are more timely and effective, according the lawsuit. The complaint points out that victims of hurricanes Katrina and Rita were provided TSA assistance for 26 months, compared to nine months for María victims. FEMA also provided additional help to Katrina and Rita victims through DHAP.

"[FEMA's] knowing and continued failure and refusal to provide housing assistance to thousands of individuals and families, who will be evicted from their current TSA shelters, is causing, and will likely continue to cause, further destitution, homelessness, hunger and stress," the lawsuit says. "As a consequence, the risk of illness will be increased and their lives will be endangered."

Both parties are scheduled to attend a telephone hearing on the case Monday before U.S. District Judge Timothy S. Hillman.

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