Hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees could be evicted from Central Florida hotels this week

Hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees could be evicted from Central Florida hotels this week
Monivette Cordeiro
Hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees could be evicted from Central Florida hotels by the end of this week after stricter eligibility requirements disqualified many of them from FEMA's temporary housing program.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto says about 1,800 evacuees staying in Florida will be denied extensions by FEMA for the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program. The federal program provides short-term lodging assistance in the form of hotel vouchers for people displaced by disasters.

Soto says many families were relying on FEMA to extend their vouchers until May 14 – but on Monday, FEMA told evacuees the aid would be cut off by Friday, April 20. The Orlando Democrat urged the federal agency and Puerto Rico's governor to extend the TSA program without conditions until the end of the school year in Central Florida on May 31.

"It is unacceptable to unexpectedly give American families a four-day notice to find new living arrangements – especially families whose lives were already uprooted due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria on their home island," Soto said in a statement. "The new eligibility conditions for TSA recipients are unreasonable."

FEMA spokesperson Daniel Llargués says that in February, Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló requested that the federal agency extend the TSA program though May with a "eligibility review" on April 20. Rosselló also added more criteria that could disqualify recipients from receiving aid.

Survivors could be disqualified if they couldn't verify occupancy, had duplicate applications for assistance or had not responded to multiple calls from a FEMA inspector. People whose homes had insufficient damage or working utilities were not eligible. The newest criteria disqualified people who had received two months of rental assistance or whose residences were being repaired under Puerto Rico’s emergency housing rebuilding program, Tu Hogar Renace.

Orlando Weekly reached out to the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration (PRFAA) to ask why the governor called for stricter eligibility requirements, but we did not receive a response by press time.

Last year, Rosselló expressed concern about the "millions" of Puerto Ricans who could be leaving the U.S. territory for the mainland, creating a "brain drain" on the island. Tens of thousands of people have evacuated from Puerto Rico to Florida in the past seven months. As of April 18,  Llargués says 2,713 families from Puerto Rico were staying under the TSA program in 34 states and the island, including 937 families in Florida. The FEMA spokesperson notes this number changes daily.

Rosselló created guidelines that are so restrictive hardly anyone is qualifying for a TSA extension beyond April 20, says Ericka Gómez-Tejeda, a community organizer with the group Vamos4PR.

"We understand that he wants people to go back to Puerto Rico, but you're cutting pensions, you're closing schools, you're cutting pay," she says. "People don't have work. What are they supposed to go back to?"

Frequent power outages are still common across the island. Puerto Rico's Education Department announced earlier this month that it was closing 283 public schools because of declining student enrollment after the hurricane.

Gómez-Tejeda called on Florida Gov. Rick Scott to use his leadership to push Rosselló for a TSA extension.

"We're going to have thousands of people in the street or living in their cars," she says. "This is not what Scott promised people when they suffered through Maria. Have respect and dignity for people. … This situation is cruel."

When asked about the need for a TSA extension, a spokesperson for Scott's office said the state of Florida has "worked nonstop to ensure families from Puerto Rico are offered every available state resource and the assistance they need to get back on their feet following Hurricane Maria."

click to enlarge Hundreds of Puerto Rican evacuees could be evicted from Central Florida hotels this week
photo by Jen Cray
Out of the 54 families staying at a Super 8 in Kissimmee after fleeing the destruction left by Hurricane Maria, only 11 households will be allowed to stay under the TSA program, according to the motel's management. The remaining 43 families will have to pay for their rooms or be forced to leave the motel after Friday, April 20.

On Monday night at Super 8, evacuees and community activists gathered around the motel pool to call for action from federal officials. Nearby, María sobbed after spending all day trying to find housing in Kissimmee.

The woman, who did not want to use her last name, said that on March 25, FEMA officials told her she had been approved for an extension on her hotel voucher until May 14. But on Monday morning, FEMA reversed its decision – María and her two teenage children no longer qualified for housing aid and would have to leave in four days.

"How is someone supposed to find somewhere to live overnight?" she asks in Spanish. "It's distressing."

María says the only affordable motel she found costs $250 a week but didn't look safe. She tried looking for apartments in Kissimmee but faced months-long waiting lists. The money María earned at her low-wage construction job was not enough for landlords seeking tenants who make three times their rent in monthly income.

When María got here from Puerto Rico, she says she was depressed and weighed 90 pounds. Slowly, she has been getting better, but FEMA's latest decision has hampered her family's plans for survival.

"It's hard, but my kids are not going to live on the streets," she says. "I can't go back to Puerto Rico." 

Desiree Torres was another of the unlucky ones at the motel. The 31-year-old mother of three children fled Puerto Rico in October after the hurricane wrecked through her house and ripped off the roof.

"There's nothing there," she says in Spanish. "My house has no electricity, no water, no roof, no doors – not even cabinets."

Torres says FEMA inspectors finally arrived at her home on April 9 to start reconstruction. A few days ago, FEMA officials told her the agency wouldn't pay for her hotel voucher after April 20. Torres says many of her neighbors weren't prepared for the sudden decision because FEMA would often extend their aid at the last minute. Torres, though, found an apartment for her family and will be moving in soon.

"It's been exhausting," she says. "I already wanted to leave this hotel because of issues with FEMA. Two weeks you're OK after they approve you, and two weeks you're stressed waiting for the extension and wondering where you're going to sleep that night. It's very stressful."

click to enlarge Desiree Torres taking care of her son Ramsses - Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Photo by Monivette Cordeiro
Desiree Torres taking care of her son Ramsses
Torres is one of the few to find affordable housing in Central Florida. Since Puerto Rican evacuees started arriving after Maria, local elected officials like state Sen. Victor Torres, D-Orlando, have called for solutions to an imploding housing crisis.

A frustrated Torres says he has advocated for Scott and the Republican leadership controlling the Florida Legislature to stop raiding money out of the state's Sadowski Affordable Housing Trust Fund for other budgetary purposes. Lawmakers ignored the advice and again dipped into the $300 million fund this past session for $185 million.

"I'm really disappointed that it's come to this," Torres says. "I hope that this doesn't fall on deaf ears again and lets these families find themselves on the street with these kids. Human lives are at stake here."

Prerak Patel is the manager of the Super 8. Since October, he's helped check in dozens of Puerto Rico hurricane victims – at one point, 90 families who evacuated from the island were staying in the Kissimmee motel. The guests call him "Patrick" because they can't pronounce his first name. Over the past months, Patel has helped evacuees with their résumés and listed himself as a job reference.

"I've only known them for four or five months, but it's a start for somebody," he says. "I came here 15 years ago and somebody gave me a start once, too. I'm a migrant just like them."

After FEMA approved extensions for families last week, Patel notified his guests. He said it was heartbreaking on Monday morning to deliver the bad news to family after family that FEMA officials had suddenly reversed their approval.

"The hotel has zero input," he says. "I want to help them, but my hands are tied – we have bills and expenses, too."

Patel says one of his guests is a 70-year-old woman who came from Puerto Rico with her grandson, who has autism and needs medical care. She doesn't speak English but found work at a restaurant to support them both. Patel says the grandmother had tears in her eyes when he told her she was no longer eligible for the hotel voucher.

"These families who really need help," he says. "They're not here for vacation. They have lost everything. … The person making these decisions has to realize that this is not just temporary assistance – you're rebuilding an individual's life and their families. Somebody has to put a heart there. I understand it's gonna cost money, but they need help."

Vanessa Miranda managed to harangue an extension out of FEMA officials after multiple phone calls.

She says she's scheduled for surgery because of a bacterial infection in her tooth. The infection has spread to the surrounding bone, which her doctor warns could be deadly.

"I told FEMA if they didn't give me an extension, I would have to choose between paying a room or paying for my surgery," she says in Spanish.

Aside from having little access to medical care in Puerto Rico, Miranda says her house is destroyed. There's no electricity and an entire wall has burned down. Black water leaks out of the floor, and her home smells like chemicals. She finally convinced FEMA to give her more time after faxing the agency her medical records.

"We didn't leave Puerto Rico because the economy is bad," she says. "We left because our lives are at risk."

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the most current number of TSA recipients.

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