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As FEMA Housing Assistance Ends, Tampa Advocates Say Displaced Puerto Rican Families Lack Options

FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program will end on June 30.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

The federal program that has provided hotel vouchers to Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria will end on Saturday, and advocates are worried some Tampa Bay families will be left with nowhere to go.

More than 600 families in Florida are currently using FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program, according to the agency. The Tamp-based group Mujeres Restauradas Por Dios, which means Women Restored Through God, has heard from more than 40 families in Tampa who still do not have permanent housing.

Sheila Quinones, a representative of the organization, said FEMA has offered flight vouchers for families in Tampa Bay to go back to Puerto Rico, but many can't or don't want to return.

"They don't want to go back to what they went through," she said. "The kids went through a lot emotionally, as well as the adults. Being without electricity and water or not being able to access the resources was really difficult for them."

More than nine months since Hurricane Maria, some parts of Puerto Rico do not have regular access to electricity and the government has permanently shut down 265 schools.

Quinones said her organization has tried to connect displaced families with non-profits and city agencies that can provide job placement and affordable housing. But in a state experiencing an affordable housing crisis, finding a place to live for these families has been difficult.

Quinones said many displaced people who have found work have also struggled to save up enough money for the initial deposit on an apartment.

"When they go to get a place they have to have first and last months rent and a security deposit," she said. "They might not be employed at that time or maybe they are employed, but their not making enough to get that apartment, so they're having a real bad time."

Quinones said that without rental assistance or other long-term solutions from state or federal officials, many Puerto Rican families may be faced with the tough choice of returning to the island or facing homelessness. 

Senator Bill Nelson and Governor Rick Scott both attempted to aid those displaced during last year's hurricane season on Thursday.

Using an obscure parliamentary procedure, Nelson made a failed attempt to force a vote on extending temporary housing.

"There are thousands of displaced families that are still unable to return to their homes...yet, despite that fact, FEMA is still saying that they are ending this Transitional Shelter Assistance," Nelson said on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Scott anounced Thursday afternoon that after meeting with Secretary Ben Carson the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the distribution of more than $600 million to build more afforable housing and provide business assistance in Florida counties hit hardest by Hurricanes Maria and Irma.

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Roberto Roldan is a senior at the University of South Florida pursuing a degree in mass communications and a minor in international studies.