Hundreds of Puerto Ricans who fled Hurricane Maria to lose U.S. housing assistance

They may soon lose access to the motels they've called home since fleeing the deadly storm.

Analee Dalmau, and her son Mathais, 16 months, along with other Puerto Ricans who were displaced by Hurricane Maria, arrive in buses from western Massachusetts on First St., NE, on June 6, 2018. They came to urge members of Congress to enact the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) because FEMA has not done so. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Analee Dalmau, and her son Mathais, 16 months, along with other Puerto Ricans who were displaced by Hurricane Maria, arrive in buses from western Massachusetts on First St., NE, on June 6, 2018. They came to urge members of Congress to enact the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) because FEMA has not done so. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Nearly 1,800 Puerto Ricans displaced after Hurricane Maria will be forced this week to move from the motels they have called home for 10 months, either taking a one-way ticket back to the island or finding housing of their own on the US mainland.

Hurricane survivors were granted a reprieve Saturday night when a federal judge stayed their departures until at least Tuesday. LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a civil rights advocacy group, filed a class-action lawsuit Saturday afternoon in the hopes of stopping the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) from ending its temporary shelter assistance (TSA) for displaced hurricane victims from Puerto Rico. The group claims it would put evacuees “at risk of homelessness and other irreparable injury.”

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“If this eviction goes forth, it will do irreparable harm to people who have already suffered so much,” said Denise Collazo, chief of staff for Faith In Action, an interfaith group that has been working with evacuees, in a statement released by LatinoJustice.

“Thousands of people lost homes, jobs, cars, places to go to school, and are suffering unnecessarily. FEMA can end this by activating the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) now. Instead, FEMA is offering one-way plane tickets to send people back to a place that is in no way ready to receive them.”

FEMA’s temporary sheltering assistance program was initially designed to last only two weeks, but was extended repeatedly as conditions on the island failed to improve. Only last week could Puerto Rican officials say that 96 percent of the island had access to clean, safe drinking water — months after the storm.

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Despite this, Puerto Rico isn’t yet ready to receive these evacuees. The economic state of the island remains dire. The commonwealth’s power grid is still unstable. Many homes remain inhospitable and 263 schools across the U.S. territory have closed.

“They have nowhere to go,” said Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, where the majority of displaced Puerto Ricans are staying, speaking Thursday on the Senate floor. “This decision to stop providing assistance to these families has many of them very scared. They’re scrambling to try to figure out what they’re going to do to find an affordable place. We’ve reached out to churches. We’ve reached out to other charitable organizations.”

These families are undoubtedly trapped between a rock and a hard place: either they return to the shattered island where they’ve left all their possessions and face the dire conditions there, or struggle to build a new life on the mainland.

“The truth is I don’t know anything,” Nilca Rosa Brooks, a Puerto Rican mother of a one-year old, told The Boston Globe. “I don’t know where I’m going.”

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The ultimatum given to Puerto Ricans further underscores the Trump administration’s mistreatment of Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. Survivors of Hurricane Rita and Hurricane Katrina, for example, were given temporary housing vouchers for 44 months, almost three times as long as Puerto Ricans.