August 11, 2018 at 7:35 PM
The calls, warning that they soon would have to leave and find their own places to live, came by robot.
Every two weeks or so, the automated voice would tell Analee Dalmau and hundreds of other displaced Puerto Rican families that the deadline was looming, that they would soon have to move out of their hotel rooms, that their refuge would no longer be covered by federal funds.
Dalmau, 24, fled her home near the island’s tropical rain forest after Hurricane Maria lashed the U.S. territory more than 10 months ago. She landed in West Springfield, Mass., where she, her sister and three nephews have been stuck. Finding a job has been nearly impossible. Though a local charity gave them a restriction-heavy housing voucher, every door they’ve knocked on has been closed because of the family’s extreme poverty.
“It’s been frustrating. We cry. We get angry. We panic. It’s not just for us, but for our kids,” Dalmau said. “We are in anguish, and I’m getting sick thinking about going back to living in a borrowed car with my entire family on the streets.”
It has been a chaotic and uncertain year for the thousands of displaced Puerto Ricans who are still living in hotels across the country. Pushed out of their homes that were destroyed last September in the powerful hurricane, they have nowhere else to go.
LatinoJustice, a civil rights organization, has filed a class-action lawsuit challenging the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s decision to end its Transitional Sheltering Assistance program without having a long-term plan for the U.S. citizens who effectively will be rendered homeless when federal aid runs out.
The case is playing out in Massachusetts District Court, where Judge Timothy S. Hillman is expected to take action at a hearing scheduled for Aug. 31, when more than 2,000 hotel dwellers might have to check out.
Federal authorities say the program can’t continue forever, that it is meant to be a bridge from disaster to recovery, one that thus far has lasted nearly a year.
“FEMA has never been designed to be a final solution,” said Michael Byrne, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA in Puerto Rico. “We care about these people, we’ve been working with them for months . . . This is not a cold, callous approach to anything.”
LatinoJustice argues FEMA is treating Puerto Ricans differently from other U.S. disaster survivors, alleging the federal agency is stopping the sheltering program prematurely and is failing to activate a long-term housing program that it used to help storm victims on the mainland after Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy.
“I know FEMA has dumped a lot of money on this. But they didn’t dump the money in the right pot,” said Emmanuel Ayala, director of community engagement for the Episcopal Church’s Latino Assistance in central Florida. Ayala has worked closely with Puerto Ricans who are now living in hotels. “It’s not getting down to the people in the way that people need it.”
The options FEMA has offered Puerto Rican hurricane refugees often haven’t matched their circumstances, advocates say. The hundreds of families left in FEMA’s hotel program as of late June represent the island’s poorest, the elderly, the sick.
Of the more than 1.1 million Puerto Ricans who registered for FEMA help after Hurricane Maria, 2 out of 5 applicants were deemed ineligible for various types of assistance. And when they tried to appeal, most — 80 percent — were rejected for the programs, FEMA data shows.
One FEMA program awarded families cash to partially rehab damaged homes to make them livable. But many evacuees had rented their homes, couldn’t prove ownership because of difficulty obtaining the documents, or lived in houses that were built informally.
Maria Monet, a single mother in Philadelphia, scrambled after the hurricane destabilized the family home on Puerto Rico’s east coast. Her mother had died two months earlier, leaving Monet the property; she also was left with the task of trying to obtain the title to apply for FEMA funds.
But the 49-year-old lost her biomedical factory job as conditions worsened on the island. She soon had no money for food. Moving to the mainland, and into a FEMA-funded hotel, felt like her only option.
While FEMA also offered rental assistance, or to lease housing units on the island, two months of rent wasn’t enough for most families. For some, returning to Puerto Rico meant potentially severe health risks, such as for the chronically ill, like 7-year-old Viktoria Guzman.
Viktoria’s health had been failing for months, as her liver stopped functioning. Her mother, Miriam Huertas, knew if she didn’t leave their damaged home in Puerto Rico, it could claim her daughter’s life. She aimed for Philadelphia because she knew the Children’s Hospital there could help Viktoria receive a transplant. A social worker helped connect her to the FEMA hotel program after she was living in her daughter’s hospital room for six weeks.
“I felt stranded at the hotel. I told FEMA I couldn’t go home and I couldn’t go to a shelter,” said Huertas, 35. She lived in the Franklin hotel, along with 30 other evacuee families. “I didn’t even know what it was to see my daughter play anymore because she was so sick.”
It was a snowy day when Will Gonzalez discovered a peculiar but powerful proviso embedded in Pennsylvania’s public housing law that would give scores of displaced Puerto Rican families a chance at a home after a monstrous hurricane took theirs.
Gonzalez, a lawyer and director of an umbrella Latino advocacy group in Philadelphia, was working with a coalition of faith, relief and community leaders to find long-term housing for nearly 80 families stuck in FEMA-funded hotels in the city of brotherly love.
Time was running out. The agency had set an expiration date for the program, and soon the survivors of one of the most powerful and destructive storms in Puerto Rico’s history would have but two choices: a plane ticket back to San Juan or homelessness.
Gonzalez and the members of the Greater Philadelphia Long Term Recovery Committee found they could legally help place the families — who represent the island’s most vulnerable — in public housing expeditiously because they were survivors of a federally declared disaster. The coalition, working with local government officials, secured a “super preference” that boosted the families to the front of the housing wait list.
The exhaustion in Monet’s tired eyes dissipated momentarily, and the anxiety of the last year fell away the moment she crossed the threshold of her new public housing unit over the Fourth of July weekend, she said. She had been living with her three teenage children in a hotel for months.
“Ayyy,” she exhaled and stretched her arms out gleefully after entering her new home on a recent day. She has a new housekeeping job, expects to fill the place with donated furniture, and she’s getting to know her neighborhood — explaining to a local grocer what it was she was hoping to buy most: a “caldero,” a traditional copper pot used for cooking large amounts of rice.
The walls were still bare, the refrigerator empty and each of the apartment’s four rooms had nothing more than a box fan and air mattress for each member of Monet’s family. But none of that mattered.
“Nothing bothers me anymore,” Monet said. “That’s how happy, no, relieved I am to finally have a home and restart our lives.”
Not everyone has been so lucky.
Attorney Kira Romero-Craft and her LatinoJustice colleagues have been pulling all-nighters for weeks to prepare the case against FEMA and keep families in hotels until the federal government comes up with a long-term plan for the Puerto Ricans she represents.
“We are not seeing a systemic approach to addressing the needs of the evacuees,” she said. “Other help was extended in other circumstances. Why isn’t it happening here?”
What advocates want is for FEMA to implement its Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which pays for and locates long-term housing for low-income families.
FEMA said the program is expensive and inefficient, citing reports from its Office of the Inspector General detailing high costs and shortfalls in meeting specific needs. In court documents, agency attorneys say officials have discretion in doling out emergency aid and are immune from liability when they make those decisions.
The transitional housing or hotel program must end because FEMA says it can no longer absorb 100 percent of the costs. The government of Puerto Rico is supposed to take over payment for at least 10 percent of the program, but the territory is in the midst of a form of bankruptcy.
“It’s not an effective program,” said Byrne, of FEMA, noting that other programs, such as partnerships with Habitat for Humanity, which is rebuilding homes, have more permanence and success. “If I’m going to invest time and effort in a program, I’m going to do it in a program that is more effective. There are lots of other ways to get them help.”
But affordable housing advocates say the agency has been deliberately undermining the program for years after Hurricane Sandy, when FEMA provided rental subsidies to survivors for at least a year so they could rebuild their lives. The Governor of Puerto Rico and members of Congress have requested the same program, but FEMA rejected it.
FEMA officials said that as of the end of June, 90 percent of disaster survivors who fled Puerto Rico after the hurricane reported that they could not return to the island. FEMA expects those who are displaced to depend on social service agencies and nonprofits in the states where they have relocated.
“If they’ve chosen to stay in the continental United States, we look to local states and communities to help supply that support framework,” Byrne said. “We are spending billions of dollars . . . and sometimes the programs are just not enough for particular families.”
New York City, the state of Massachusetts and nongovernmental organizations have been paying for extended hotel stays, moving families into existing homeless shelter programs or providing housing vouchers. The vast majority of evacuees went to Florida, where public housing wait lists are, in some cases, years long.
Dalmau is No. 502 on the Springfield, Mass., waiting list. Her housing voucher pays for one year of rent, but landlords want to know what happens after that. She has visited more than two dozen places since April, but she suspects that property managers become skeptical when they learn she has three children — one with special needs — and a sister living with her.
Her lack of a permanent address has caused problems for her when she applies for jobs — without one, she can’t get a call back.
In Puerto Rico, Dalmau had plans. She had a job and was going to start a physical therapy program at a university. The hurricane destroyed everything.
“I’ve been working since I was 18,” Dalmau said. “I’ve never had to depend on anyone, or the government. People think that is why Puerto Ricans came here, but it’s not true. We just want a real chance to make things work.”