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No more FEMA hotel vouchers for displaced Puerto Ricans in Florida

This week, Richard Gonzalez's motel rooms on a small coffee table contained newspapers designed to keep him from becoming homeless. There was a curriculum vitae in English that his daughter in Puerto Rico had made for him. There was a list of contacts for social agencies. There was a piece of paper on which Gonzalez scribbled the phone numbers of a dozen rented apartments.

But on Saturday morning after he finishes at 8pm. Until 4am as a dealer at the Seminole Casino in Hollywood, Gonzalez was preparing to visit the Extended Stay America Hotel in Fort Lauderdale, his empty home for the last two months.

Gonzalez, 53, planned to drive north to Orlando, where his mother and brother lived for several years. Like thousands of American citizens from Puerto Rico who fled to Florida last September after Hurricane Maria, Gonzalez does not know what's coming next. The money that keeps a roof over disappears as the Federal Emergency Management Agency hotel voucher program expires on June 30th.

What Gonzalez knows is that he does not retire to Puerto Rico ̵

1; at least not yet. When asked what he would do after this weekend, Gonzalez, whose wife and adult daughter and son were still living on the island, began to cry.

"I'd like to go to Puerto Rico now, but to what?" He said in Spanish and said that jobs were nowhere to be found there. "I tell my wife, 'What are we doing? I can not do anything without work.'"

FEMA has extended the deadline for its coupon program, known as the Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA), four times since October, sometimes with just a few days. But now the agency has put forward a final proposal: Accept a simple plane ticket back to the island by July 1 or find another route.

The vast majority has decided to stay. Of the nearly 600 families in Florida who were still part of the hotel voucher program on June 26, the agency said only 44 had returned to Puerto Rico after FEMA's groschen. FEMA's latest national statistics show that of the nearly 2,000 families who stayed in hotels since 2 June, only 11 had flown home and 180 had expressed interest

Luis DeRosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce Miami, which supports displaced families in the area, said FEMA made a mistake by canceling hotel help.

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Richard Gonzalez unsuccessfully attempts to find long-term accommodation in South Florida since escaping Puerto Rico in January. He now lives in hotels on FEMA coupons, but the coupon program ends June 30.

Ellis Rua Ellis Rua [email protected]

"If you cut them, where will they go – the road?" DeRosa said. "This is called a forced homelessness by the federal government."

Most displaced families in Florida have landed in the districts of Osceola and Orange and have occupied the lion's share of the entire motels in Orlando and Kissimmee. But 46 families were still living in the Miami-Dade counties this week, the third largest of any county in the state.

More than 7,000 families – and more than 19,000 people – have been participating in the voucher program nationwide since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico nine months ago, wiping out its power grid and probably claiming thousands of deaths. In the following weeks FEMA was heavily criticized for its slow response.

Since then, most families have managed to leave their hotels and either move in with family members, find low-income rents, or return to Puerto Rico. But for the last permanent hotel dwellers affordable housing is impossible to find.

" We already have an affordable real estate crisis," said Gladys Cook of the Florida Housing Coalition, a nonprofit organization in Tallahassee that is pushing for affordable housing in the state. "If you have more people who have no resources trying to invade this system, it's more of a bottleneck."

Ariana Colon, a 20-year-old mother, the one-year-old son, and another child in four months, have been left behind. Colon lives in a Holiday Inn in Kissimmee, the fifth Central Florida hotel that she and her boyfriend have lived in since Christmas. Colon works at Burger King for a few hours a week and her boyfriend works as a hairdresser.

But it's not enough, says Colon. Landlords of studios and studios have asked them three times for the monthly rent – the first and last month's rent plus a deposit – which they simply can not afford. And the low-income designated-entity waiting lists are typically one to two years long.

Some landlords, Colon adds, have even cited their young son as a justification to dismiss them. "They said there were too many people in one place," she said.

Prior to Hurricane Maria, Colon lived with her grandmother in Bayamón, near the north coast of Puerto Rico. Although her home was not completely destroyed by the storm, the situation was desperate: Colon spent three days looking for baby food.

She also saw government officials – in particular, she says, Florida Governor Rick Scott – say on television that Florida had the opportunity to bid for those who wanted to come.

"We came here because the government told us" Come on, there are jobs, there are places to sleep, "Colon said." When we got here, there was nothing. "

Colon is discouraged, but , like Gonzalez, does not budge.

"I came here and I'm ready to fight," she said, "I did not come here just to get benefits. I do not want to feel like I came here in vain. "

Senator Bill Nelson has called for a new expansion of the TSA program in recent weeks, but his requests have largely gone undetected and he made an unsuccessful appeal on Thursday Nelson asked for unanimous approval of a bill he sponsored, meaning that it would have been accepted immediately if no one had objected, but Senator Ron Johnson protested shortly after Nelson

Nelson called on FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to activate a program called Disaster Housing Assistance (DHAP) to provide monthly rent subsidies to some tenants. Expelled Puerto Rican families by February 2019. [19659002] He criticized a perceived double standard and found that there s DHAP program was activated after Hurricane Katrina 2009, but not after Hurricane Maria.

"If it was good enough for the people fleeing from New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, why is not it good enough for the people who are now equally devastated in Florida, having faced the deplorable conditions of their home island, Nelson said:

FEMA has argued that the DHAP program is actually less effective than its alternatives. One option, the so-called Direct Lease Program, gives some families the opportunity to move to vacant properties in Puerto Rico.

"DHAP is not needed to house displaced disaster victims," ​​FEMA wrote on its website earlier this month, saying that the direct rental program offers survivors of disasters the same accommodation option as DHAP in a more efficient and cost-effective manner.

Another option, the so-called rental allowance, could help families whose homes in Puerto Rico are still considered uninhabitable by FEMA, and could be used to rent either in Puerto Rico or on the mainland.

But these options have no recourse to people like Gonzalez, who say they've done their best to find a place to live, but are now on the verge of homelessness

On Tuesday, Gonzalez drove to Miami Gardens an hour south of Fort Lauderdale A meeting at the Casa Refugio de Miami, led by FEMA officials and the Puerto Rican government, two days earlier Gonzalez had been encouraged by a phone call, suggesting that the meeting might help him find a longer-term housing solution when he arrived, he said he felt deceived. "

" It was a farce, "said Gonzalez." It was just to ask those of us, d He is here to return to Puerto Rico. "

Gonzalez left the meeting with resources, including contact information for housing programs in Puerto Rico and for non-profit organizations in Florida. But he says, when he tried to call three of the numbers, nobody answered.

He likes his work in the casino. It's a position similar to the one he held at home, and he proudly notes that he was named Employee of the Month in June. In the long run, he sees room to progress and earn more money for his family.

Of course, everything is now on hold.

"Here's the tricky the apartments," Gonzalez said. "Where can I get help?"

El Nuevo Herald reporter Luis Antonio Hernandez has contributed to this report.

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