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Displaced Puerto Ricans face uncertainty as FEMA deadlines shift

Jenyffer Ortiz and her daughter, Valerie Rivera, on July 3, after they returned to their temporary home at the Holiday Inn Express in the Bronx. (Photo: David “Dee” Delgado for Yahoo News)

Jenyffer Ortiz, like some of the 1,700 other homeless evacuees who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria last September, did not wait to be checked out of their temporarily subsidized hotel rooms, as per the deadline last Saturday set by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

She vacated her double room last Friday in New York without knowing where she and her kids were going to sleep next. She had no way of knowing a lawsuit would be filed by families like hers and civil rights groups just before the deadline, keeping evacuees in their hotel rooms for a few more days until a formal hearing could be held Monday.

But Puerto Rican evacuees like her were granted a fifth extension to remain in their FEMA-sponsored motels and hotels until July 23, a federal judge ruled on Tuesday. The extension came after another federal judge issued a temporary restraining order blocking the agency from ending its Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program on June 30, the program’s fourth and seemingly final end date.

Ortiz, 48, spent three nights in a shelter near Times Square with her son and daughter before gathering their belongings in plastic bags and shopping carts. With the help of local relief organizers, they returned to her hotel near Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. She didn’t plan on unpacking.

A childhood friend and fellow evacuee helps Jenyffer Ortiz pack her belongings into a car. (Photo: Kadia Tubman/Yahoo News)

While Tuesday’s extension offered displaced Puerto Ricans some relief, the respite from instability is only temporary. Housing assistance will continue for two weeks until a final order is issued on whether or not TSA will be further extended. Meanwhile, displaced families face the challenge of navigating ill-suited shelter systems or finding permanent housing.

“The biggest challenge facing the evacuee population in this city is they can’t get housing without a job, and you can’t get a job without secure housing,” said Peter Gudaitis, executive director of New York Disaster Interfaith Services (NYDIS), an organization that’s been providing resources, case management and advocacy for evacuees since they began to arrive last fall.

“So there are a lot of them in this sort of Catch-22,” he continued. “Plus, any family that has kids in school wants a job and housing near where their kids are enrolled. So getting a job is not their only need.”

Jenyffer Ortiz cooks chicken in a rice cooker in the hotel bathroom, where there is counter space. She cooks for herself to better deal with diabetes and other ailments. (Photo: David “Dee” Delgado for Yahoo News)

According to NYDIS, more than 100 Puerto Rican families live in FEMA hotels in New York City, but about 900 displaced families are staying with relatives and more than 200 are navigating the shelter system, with difficulty.

Those in TSA shelters “are not chronically homeless people that are used to living on public assistance,” said Gudaitis. “These [displaced people] were homeowners and renters in Puerto Rico. They’re not used to the way the shelter system works for the chronically homeless or the mentally ill.”

Ortiz left Puerto Rico in December, three months after Hurricane Maria crashed into the island, directly or indirectly killing hundreds of people and decimating the U.S. territory’s power grid. Without electricity, she couldn’t refrigerate her insulin to treat her diabetes. “I feared dying,” said Ortiz. When she arrived to New York, she went to a shelter because she wasn’t aware of the FEMA temporary housing program. Eventually she relocated to a Holiday Inn through TSA, and for six months she grew accustomed to living in the hotel, switching rooms every 30 days according to hotel cleaning policy.

Jenyffer Ortiz takes 14 different medications daily. (Photo: David “Dee” Delgado for Yahoo News)

While deadlines for leaving the hotel approached and were extended, Ortiz made a home for herself and her children, cooking complete meals from a rice cooker in her bathroom and baking flan in her microwave. Her daughter enrolled in a nearby school and her son searched for work. She found a physician she could reach without traveling too far on her wooden cane. She knew where to do laundry and grocery shopping.

“After Maria,” said Ortiz, “You have a new life.”

The Ortiz family had been at the hotel for six months when the June 30 deadline came. They left for a shelter in a different part of the city where food cost more and transportation was farther away. The hardest change for Ortiz was the shelter rules, including a curfew and ban on electric appliances like her rice cooker.

She kept in contact with the Holiday Inn manager and asked to return to her room, which he granted. Gudaitis, who has supported displaced families like hers, says he understands why families will immediately take up the chance to stay in a commercial hotel paid for by FEMA. But he recommends against moving back. “It’s really like kicking the can down the road for themselves, and they’re restarting their clock,” explained Gudaitis. “Leaving the hotel actually delays some of the entitlements you’re able to access when you’re in the shelter system.”

Back in a familiar place, Ortiz admitted that she questions if leaving Puerto Rico was the right decision. Her daughter was bullied in the nearby school and her son doesn’t speak English. In the near future, Ortiz said she wants to get a job to give her kids a stable life. “I still feel useful,” she said. “Even with my medical condition.”

Jennifer Ortiz’s daughter, Valerie Rivera, in their Bronx hotel room on July 3. (Photo: David “Dee” Delgado for Yahoo News)

If FEMA stops providing temporary accommodation, evacuees will have two options: stay mainland and figure out housing — including homeless shelters — before July 23, or stay until Aug. 30 and have FEMA pay for a one-way ticket back to Puerto Rico.

Meanwhile, civil rights groups and TSA recipients are taking FEMA to court.

“What we’re asking for is what is fair,” said Kira Romero-Craft, managing attorney of LatinoJustice PRLDEF, the national civil rights organization that filed the lawsuit against FEMA. “The families that are fighting for [TSA] are families that are fighting for their rights. It’s nothing that hasn’t already been extended for others who have faced similar instances. What we’ve seen in the past is that other communities that have been affected by natural disasters — like Hurricane Maria, like Hurricane Katrina, like Hurricane Harvey — is that the rebuilding process is long-term and FEMA assistance has been up to 26 months. What these families are fighting for has been offered in the past to similarly situated American citizens.”

Jenyffer Ortiz opens her door at the Holiday Inn Express in the Bronx. (Photo: David ‘Dee’ Delgado for Yahoo News)

Following Saturday and Tuesday’s extension news, LatinoJustice set out to inform displaced families that they could remain in their FEMA hotels — if they hadn’t already checked out. “We had families who had to leave, who took the return trip to Puerto Rico, or didn’t hear over the news and had to make other arrangements,” said Romero-Craft. “We’re working with the different officials to transition everyone back who desperately needs the assistance to get them in a safe place.”

Nearly 300 days after Hurricane Maria, Ortiz has no intention to return to Puerto Rico anytime soon — even if that means facing the possibility of being put into another shelter come July 23. “I need a good shelter,” she said. “A shelter where I can cook my food and keep my children safe.”

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