Puerto Rican evacuees in Central Florida fret over housing as officials point fingers


Puerto Rican evacuees in Central Florida fret over housing as officials point fingers

Two and a half months after fleeing their home in Puerto Rico, Maria Baez Claudio was told she and her 5-year-old grandson had to leave the Super 8 motel in Kissimmee because their federal housing assistance was running out.

“We have nowhere to go,” said Baez, 53, who had been living in a public-housing complex in San Juan before coming to Orlando. “We have no family here. We have no financial options to move anywhere. We are practically on the streets.”

Baez has benefited from FEMA’s Transitional Shelter Assistance — a hotel voucher program for families displaced by Hurricane Maria — along with her grandson, Christian, who has severe brain damage that affects his abilities to speak and walk.

Although the temporary shelter program was extended until March 20 following a request from the governor of Puerto Rico, hundreds of people like Baez are falling through the cracks of an often-confusing and bureaucratic federal aid process. And with recovery efforts moving slowly on the island, evacuees are hesitant to return.

“I filled out the application, but they said that San Juan was supposedly habitable, even if San Juan is still not powered at 100 percent. It’s at about 50 percent, and the power comes and goes. And that’s one of the reasons I didn’t qualify [for the extension],” Baez said.

But on Jan. 13, the day she was supposed to be on the streets, the office of U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Orlando, stepped in and helped her successfully appeal her decision with FEMA. She was granted a TSA extension until Feb. 14.

Although FEMA extended the TSA program until March 20 for evacuees in Florida, it is not a blanket extension for all its beneficiaries. According to FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargués, the extensions are granted on a “case-by-case basis with rolling deadlines.”

In a call with Gov. Rick Scott last week, FEMA administrator Brock Long said the program would be extended for “individuals whose homes in Puerto Rico have not yet been determined by FEMA to be restored to safe and livable conditions and have power.”

As of Saturday, 4,322 families were being housed under the program in the United States — 1,794 of them in Florida, according to FEMA.

Baez, a nurse practitioner, became unemployed on the island after the few patients she tended to moved away. She is relying on food stamps to survive as she cares for Christian.

“Without giving us many options, they just gave us the American Red Cross number to check if they could help us with shelter, any place they could find, but they said everything is full,” Baez said.

Several other families at the motel also had their extensions denied. Soto successfully appealed FEMA’s decision on three other applications. He said they were all granted TSA extensions until Feb. 14.

Soto has stressed that the TSA program is just a short-term fix for a long-term housing problem in the region.

To add to the confusion, there is a different FEMA housing program that pays rent directly to displaced people for up to 18 months, but because of squabbling and miscommunication among officials, it is not yet available in Florida.

The federal Direct Lease program is “ideal relief for Central Florida,” Soto said. Soto, who stood on stage with Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló at a town-hall meeting Friday in Kissimmee, has requested that FEMA extend the Direct Lease program in Florida, or a six-month extension of the TSA program.

However, as a host state, Florida cannot request the Direct Lease program for Puerto Rican evacuees. It can only be requested by Rosselló. But Rosselló has not made that request.

In an interview with the Orlando Sentinel on Friday, Rosselló said he wanted to make sure the aid was first available for the island before requesting the same program for the mainland.

“It was requested for Puerto Rico first, and it wasn’t given,” Rosselló argued. “It’s not in our interest to request for the Direct Lease outside and not to be approved for it. What I’ve said is, approve it for Puerto Rico first, and then we’ll approve it afterwards.”

But Llargués said the Direct Lease program had been approved for Puerto Rico since October, shortly after the hurricane, and 16 families are being sheltered on the island. Rosselló insisted the program was not active in Puerto Rico, and Soto said he was unaware that it had taken effect on the island.

Meanwhile, community organizations struggle to carry the burden, as evacuees in Central Florida go to them as a last resort.

“We’re at a loss because we don’t know what the best options for these families are, if there’s any,” said Marucci Guzmán, executive director of Latino Leadership, who said about 1,000 people have called the organization saying they would be kicked out of their hotels.

“I don’t know what happens to those families … We can do what we can in our little corner of the world, but obviously we don’t have the funds to pay for first and last months’ rent, and help people with the fee to run the credit and application fees for apartments,” Guzmán said.

“You just feel like no one cares,” she added. “It’s like a quiet void.”

bpadro@orlandosentinel.com or 407-232-0202. Follow me on Twitter @BiancaJoanie

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