Analee Dalmau, 24, fled her home in Puerto Rico 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. With federal funds running out, Dalmau and hundreds of other displaced Puerto Rican families may be without shelter.
“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,” she added.
A local charity gave Dalmau a restriction-heavy housing voucher, but every door they’ve knocked on has been closed. 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.
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. Thousands of Puerto Ricans are still living in hotels across the country, and they have nowhere to go. The powerful hurricane that came in September destroyed many of their homes on the island.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
“FEMA has never been designed to be a final solution,” said Michael Byrne, the federal coordinating officer for FEMA in Puerto Rico.
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.
In Puerto Rico, Dalmau had plans, she says. She had a job and was going to start a physical therapy program at a university. The hurricane destroyed everything.