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Homeless Puerto Ricans: FEMA abandoned us

FEMA kicked more than 1,000 Puerto Ricans out of emergency shelter in hotels, while other families are still waiting for help.

Génesis Ayala Torres holds her two-year-old daughter, Evangeline, at their attic apartment in York, PA, Sept. 20, 2018. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.
Génesis Ayala Torres holds her two-year-old daughter, Evangeline, at their attic apartment in York, PA, Sept. 20, 2018. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.

Time is running out for Dacny Segarra to find an affordable home in the Orlando area large enough for her 14-member family. They have spent the last year searching for housing with no luck (Orlando is notoriously expensive). Now, the family is spending their savings on a hotel room, but they need to find a long-term alternative before their savings runs out.

Last year, Hurricane Maria destroyed the ground under their large three-story home in a rural section of San Juan, and they were forced to leave the island. Dacny, her disabled husband who receives dialysis, their four adult children and their two spouses, and six young grandkids are effectively homeless, sheltered in the hotel room but without permanent housing.

“We had to leave [Puerto Rico] because there was no electricity, the doctors weren’t seeing everyone, our health was very bad, and our house was uninhabitable. We couldn’t stay in Puerto Rico,” Dacny, who speaks Spanish, told ThinkProgress through a translator.

Before they had to dip into their savings, their hotel was paid for by the Federal Emergency Management System — an emergency shelter program instituted after Maria. However, a federal judge recently allowed FEMA to stop funding the program, called the Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program, kicking more 1,000 Puerto Ricans out of hotels and onto the streets with few other resources.

An estimated 135,000 people left Puerto Rico after the storm only to hit the expensive housing market throughout the continental U.S. Those families often arrived without a job, with few belongings, and facing an overwhelming language barrier. For those lucky enough to receive any assistance from FEMA, the amount is often insufficient to meet their needs, and some sources of emergency assistance have since dried up. Advocates told ThinkProgress that FEMA often didn’t provide displaced people with enough information about the available resources that could help them rebuild their lives, including shelter through TSA, short-term rental assistance, and home repair funds and loans.

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Dacny’s four adult kids, for example, all work to help support the family, but they still don’t make enough to put a down payment on a mobile home or convince landlords that they will make their monthly rent payments.

“We don’t want to live off of government assistance,” Dacny said. “That’s not what we are looking for. We want to pay our own rent and expenses.”

Still, the family is determined to make a life for themselves in central Florida. They’ve become close to several other displaced Puerto Rican families and started connecting with the community. One of her grandsons joined a local baseball team.

“FEMA taking away the hotel assistance was a way to make families like mine give up and go back to Puerto Rico. But that’s not going to happen,” Dacny said. “The reason why I came here was because we wanted to start a new life here in the United States and in Florida.”

“I thought FEMA was going to help us.”

Génesis Ayala Torres made the best of her tiny, dim-lit attic apartment in York, Pa., where she, her two-year-old daughter Evangeline, and her mother Bethzaida have been living since early spring after fleeing unlivable conditions in their hometown, Lajas, Puerto Rico. The 20-year-old mom decorated their shared space: on the walls, which are lined with plywood and cardboard, are a small mermaid decal, arrow stickers, and a mirror.

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Génesis shares a bed with her daughter that was covered with a pink and aqua comforter and a ‘My Little Pony’ pillow. Bethzaida sleeps in a bed right next to them. They keep food in plastic containers and a small mini-fridge, and clothes hang on a small pole in the corner next to the room’s only window, which is partially blocked by the air conditioning unit.

Génesis Ayala Torres changes her two-year-old daughter, Evangeline, at their attic apartment in York, PA, Sept. 20, 2018. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.
Génesis Ayala Torres changes her two-year-old daughter, Evangeline, at their attic apartment in York, PA, Sept. 20, 2018. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.

On a recent weekday, ThinkProgress visited the family in the attic. Génesis looked over at her daughter who was playing on the bed with one of her dolls.

“If I didn’t have her, I would still be in Puerto Rico, living,” Génesis said. “I try not to suffer, but I do suffer. But I won’t let her see that. I won’t let her see me crying.”

Before Hurricane Maria, Génesis says, she was raising her daughter at her family’s large Lajas home, while studying to become a nurse to cancer patients. Their home was close to the beach, next to a large field where cows and goats grazed.

Hurricane Maria destroyed the roof, then flooded the inside of the home and everything inside, including all of the electrical wires, her daughter’s crib, and their clothes. Repairs to the home alone were estimated at around $10,000, according to Bethzaida. The family doesn’t have enough in savings to cover the repairs, and they didn’t have flood or hurricane insurance, or any other means of obtaining the needed funds.

“I thought FEMA was going to help us,” Génesis said.

Génesis Ayala Torres walks to her job at CASA in York, PA, Sept. 20, 2018, where she helps the organization register Hispanic voters who live the area. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.
Génesis Ayala Torres walks to her job at CASA in York, PA, Sept. 20, 2018, where she helps the organization register Hispanic voters who live the area. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.

The family applied for FEMA assistance but were denied. Like many families in Puerto Rico, they couldn’t find the necessary papers needed to prove the home was theirs: It was passed down through the family through generations. That’s pretty common for people in Puerto Rico, said Ricardo Negron-Almodovar, LatinoJustice’s legal services coordinator for its southeast office.

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“When they told my mom that she wasn’t getting help, my mom started crying,” Génesis said. And “I started crying ’cause it was the house she was born in, it was the house I grew up in, and the house my daughter was going to start growing up in.”

Many other Puerto Ricans displaced by the storm share her desire to return to their homes, but aren’t able to afford the repairs needed to make them habitable again. Moving to the U.S. mainland is not an easy transition: It’s a life-changing experience many settled, home-owning Puerto Ricans would prefer not to make.

But FEMA approved only 41 percent of the 1.1 million Puerto Ricans who applied for assistance following Maria, according to data on the federal agency’s website. Of the 774,821 homeowners who applied for assistance, 96 percent received $10,000 or less to repair their homes — this includes the quarter of all applicants who were denied any funds because inspectors said they found no damage.

Another 216,483 homeowners applied for repairs through FEMA’s Shelter and Temporary Essential Power (STEP) program, which disperses federal funds through the Puerto Rican government. However, as of Sept. 25 only 122,352 (56 percent) of those applicants have been approved, according to a spokesperson for the federal agency.

Displaced people have been denied assistance for other reasons: missing the deadline to apply because they lost their jobs on the island, or their medical condition worsened due to the lack of services available on the island, Negron-Almodovar said. A number of families missed the dates, he added, when their homes were inspected while they weren’t there. They had already fled to the mainland.

A FEMA spokesperson said people have also been denied because the damage affected a rental property or a person’s secondary home, someone else in the household applied for and received assistance instead, an applicant’s insurance covered the losses, or the federal agency couldn’t contact the applicant.

Puerto Rican evacuees told ThinkProgress they feel they were short-changed by the government compared to the relief people affected by other disasters received by FEMA. They certainly got less, on average, in financial help from FEMA: According to the New York Times, the median home repair grant FEMA gave to Puerto Ricans was $1,800, while Hurricane Harvey survivors in Texas were given about $9,127.

FEMA spokesperson Daniel Llargues told ThinkProgress not to compare disaster assistance spending or approvals as apples-to-apples. Each storm and area differ, Llargues said, from the size and construction of homes, the amount of rain that fell, to the general landscape of the region — factoring into the types of loans or assistance that are distributed. He says the federal agency also received duplicate applications for assistance, meaning multiple people from the same family applied for assistance but only one was approved.

FEMA also says they award assistance to homeowners who lost their legal documents but who can show they own their house by signing a self-declaration form. The federal agency is currently reviewing more than 9,000 applications in that very position. But the Torres family told ThinkProgress they were never informed that was an option.

The only communication most people received from the federal agency, Negron-Almodovar said, were automated messages giving them the option of a free ticket back to Puerto Rico, where they have no habitable home.

“FEMA definitely failed these families in disclosing the type of assistance that they could apply for,” he said.

“If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t be here.”

For Puerto Ricans in need of home repairs, the federal government provided a few other forms of financial help.

This includes U.S. Small Business Association (SBA) disaster loans that allow renters and homeowners to borrow up to $40,000 (at 4 to 8 percent interest, depending on credit) to repair or replace items destroyed during the storm such as clothes, furniture, cars and appliances. The program allows homeowners to borrow up to $200,000 to repair their primary residences back to pre-disaster conditions. Because they’re loans, people who have poor credit or low income may be ineligible, excluding many Puerto Rican homeowners who live paycheck to paycheck, like Génesis’ mother.

Through March, the SBA approved just 44 percent of the 90,477 Hurricane Maria home loan applications it received, according to a report from the Office of the Inspector General. And help was slow to arrive: Money had only been disbursed to 22 percent of approved applications, the report found. It also noted the agency’s failure to hire enough Spanish interpreters, which led to long wait times and dropped calls.

FEMA also touts its Direct Lease and Multi-Family Lease and Repair programs, which allow homeowners to renovate and rent out their units to disaster survivors, according to FEMA spokesperson Dasha Castillo. But the agency has awarded this assistance to just 663 households.

It is common for low-income disaster survivors to be denied recovery loans or have their repair costs underestimated, according to an August report from the Urban Institute. For middle-income homeowners who do qualify, obtaining the loans can hurt their chances for future recovery grants.

Those loans typically do not help vulnerable disaster survivors like Ramon Diaz Tirado and his wife Vicenta Ortiz, who both moved Lancaster, Pa. after Hurricane Maria destroyed their home in Guayama, Puerto Rico. The storm caused an estimated $10,000 to $15,000 in building damage. Counting the furniture, appliances, electronics and possessions left inside during the storm, Maria left the family in need of about $25,000 to $35,000.

Ramon Diaz Tirado holds the Puerto Rican flag at a candlelight vigil in Lancaster, PA, Sept. 20, 2018, commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.
Ramon Diaz Tirado holds the Puerto Rican flag at a candlelight vigil in Lancaster, PA, Sept. 20, 2018, commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.

They were denied home repair assistance from FEMA as well denied an SBA disaster loan, leaving them without the means to make the needed repairs. Like many other Puerto Ricans, Ramon said he was missing documentation showing that he owned the land under the house.

Ramon was forced to give up his job as a police officer and his 30-year pension, but he and Vicenta wanted to stay in Puerto Rico after the storm. They tried to make it work and slept on air mattresses at their godson’s home for a while. But Vicenta had breast cancer and couldn’t access chemotherapy treatments on the island following the hurricane, and they were forced to leave. They had children living in Lancaster and moved in with them, but the accommodations were small. Eventually, Ramon and Vicenta had to live in separate homes.

Ramon and Vicenta still want to go back home, to the island. “If I had that kind of money, I wouldn’t be here,” Ramon said, referring to money needed to fix up their home. “It was kind of hard… To lose everything. I mean it’s left you in the streets. And when you see your house with more water than a swimming pool, something’s wrong.”

“Maybe they could be a little more humane.”

Fuentes (who asked ThinkProgress to identify her and her husband Lopez by their last names only, citing safety concerns) recalled the sound of Hurricane Maria as it passed over her hometown Cidra, Puerto Rico. “You could hear houses ripping, trees ripping apart and it was very hard to sleep during those 48 hours,” she said. The sound of the wind crashing through the windows was “like demons screaming at your ear.”

When she walked outside after the storm, “it felt like an atomic bomb hit Puerto Rico, and it was so sad to see houses go away. It was so sad to see my house go away. To see everything we had worked for over the years, all lost within a second,” she said.

Fuentes had been living at her husband Lopez’s inherited family home for the past 16 years. The storm almost destroyed the home, and it would cost an estimated $25,000 to fix it. FEMA denied them funds to repair their home.

It was hard living on the island: Fuentes has asthma and had trouble accessing medication. She says water was expensive and stores restricted the amount of food you could buy. You had to wait hours for gas or cash and pray that the banks and gas stations did not run out.

Just over a month after the hurricane, they moved to the Bronx where Fuentes grew up. While bouncing between friends’ homes and a homeless shelter, they learned about FEMA’s TSA program, which allowed them to live in a local Holiday Inn Express. There, they got free breakfast and a private bathroom, and the hotel program helped them save up money, which they hoped to put toward an apartment of their own.

The Bronx was a good place for the couple to live. Fuentes knew it well, they could take public transportation around since they couldn’t afford a car, and they both found jobs that they enjoyed. Today, they earn a combined income of about $59,000 pre-taxes. They get about $100 in public assistance biweekly from New York City, she said, but a lot of that went towards public transportation and hot meals. FEMA gave them housing vouchers, but it’s not enough: they got a total of $800 — that’s two months’ rent based on the rental market in Puerto Rico, she said. At that rate, they struggled to find an affordable apartment in the Bronx, where the average rental price for a one-bedroom apartment is more than $1,500 per month.

“It basically covers half of the rent,” Fuentes said of the voucher. “I’ve still got it. I still have the money saved.

A woman prays during a candlelight vigil in Lancaster, PA, Sept. 20, 2018, commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.
A woman prays during a candlelight vigil in Lancaster, PA, Sept. 20, 2018, commemorating the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria. Photo by Hai-Lam Phan.

Fuentes and Lopez are not alone: Many displaced Puerto Ricans are struggling to earn enough to afford the high cost of housing in continental U.S. communities, even after they find work. According to FEMA, the agency has spent more than $143 million providing rental assistance to 140,615 Puerto Ricans following the storm. But often those funds were calculated for Puerto Rican market rates, according to Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, an associate counsel at LatinoJustice, and many of those vouchers only covered two months’ rent.

FEMA has other options: It could activate a separate U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) program called the Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP) that provides displaced disaster survivors and evacuees with housing subsidies that cover rent, security deposit, and utilities. The program was created in the wake of the George W. Bush administration’s disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina, and it’s been used following Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Sandy. But the Trump administration has refused to utilize it, calling the program “inefficient and not cost effective.”

Even if a family is able to obtain a FEMA rental assistance voucher, they find other hurdles to stable housing. Landlords will refuse to accept the vouchers, in keeping with the country’s well-documented history of federal housing voucher discrimination, said Peter Gudaitis, executive director and CEO of the New York Disaster Interfaith Services.

“We haven’t had much success in families being able to utilize those FEMA vouchers. It is difficult finding landlords who will accept those,” said Gudaitis, who helps displaced people in New York.

Some displaced people say they face other forms of discrimination, too. “When the landlords find out we are Puerto Rican, one landlord told me in English that they didn’t want to rent to us because they felt like we will destroy the house and not pay,” Dacny said.

Securing a public housing unit is nearly impossible or takes years to obtain, due to the chronic nationwide shortage of public housing units.

Fuentes and Lopez know how difficult it is for Puerto Ricans to find housing, even with the rental assistance. A few days before the TSA program ended on September 14, the couple left the hotel to find shelter elsewhere. The only place they could find was a homeless shelter in Brooklyn at 39 Auburn Place. Fights broke out among residents, and their room was dirty, she said. They shared a bathroom with other residents.

“When I got there, it looked like an insane house,” Fuentes said.

The couple moved back into the hotel for the remaining few days before the TSA program ended, and they’ve been relying on friends and donated hotel points for a place to sleep at night. Right now, they’re effectively homeless: the couple expects to be out of the hotel Oct. 4, and they’re hoping that one of their apartment applications gets approved before then.

“We are bracing ourselves for things to come because we have no other options. We couldn’t get our own apartment because we didn’t have the money for it,” Fuentes said.

Her message to FEMA? “Maybe they could be a little more humane.”

Rebekah Entralgo contributed reporting and translation.

Clarification: FEMA spokesperson Dasha Castillo told ThinkProgress that “the Direct Lease and Multifamily lease programs does not give out loans. These programs offer rental assistance.” The article has been updated to reflect this information.