Orlando, Florida - Two days before the end of the federal program that has sheltered Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria in small hotels in the United States, a coalition of community organizations created a temporary program to house 45 families who are still refugees in Central Florida.
If there is no turnaround does by Friday, that will mean the end of the Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA) program of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), through which - and to date - 996 families are still refugees in 26 jurisdictions in the United States. Of that total, 398 are in Puerto Rico, one of the highest refugee figures, told yesterday Dasha Castillo, a FEMA spokesperson, to El Nuevo Día.
"On September 14, we will have Puerto Rican families living in cars or under a bridge," said
Betsy Franceschini, Senior State Director Florida Southeast at Hispanic Federation, one of the most influential non-governmental organizations in the United States.
After Hurricane Maria almost a year ago, nearly 800 Puerto Rican families settled in Central Florida. And although there were several extensions to the FEMA program, last week District Judge Timothy S. Hillman denied a request to extend this program indefinitely.
With his decision, he set September 14 - this Friday - as the last valid day for this federal program, unless FEMA announces any additional extension.
Franceschini explained that the initiative of the community coalition to provide housing for the 45 Puerto Rican families was an idea of organizations like VAMOS4PR, the Episcopal Church and the Hispanic Federation.
They have already identified 20 apartments, in the city of Ocala (one hour and a half from Orlando), that will soon be inspected. In addition to Ocala, they are looking for places in other counties outside of the Orlando metropolitan area, since due to the fast growth of this area, rental prices have skyrocketed, said Franceschini.
Places identified in Ocala are pay rents between $ 700 and $ 800 per month, with two and three rooms and would house these families, at least, until December.
These families will also receive $ 1,000 to cover some expenses, she noted.
"The issue is what will happen to these families between September 14 and the moment these homes in Ocala are available. This is something that takes time, but the response of the government of Florida and Washington was that they can not do anything," said the community leader, who led the Office of Puerto Rico Federal Affairs in Central Florida years ago.
Vilmarie Cardona lives in a hotel in Orlando since she arrived in Florida on November 2. She has three children and works as a housekeeper in a hotel, for $ 1,600 a month.
"Everything is very expensive here, but I want to work and contribute. We just need a little push, because itis impossible to pay a $ 1,200 rent. I could pay about $ 800, yes, but there are one –or two- year waiting lists, and the rest is very expensive," said the young woman.
She is a nurse, but said that they have not wanted to validate her studies here or grant her the license that would allow her to practice her profession. "I work. I do not expect things to fall out of the sky, but when you go and ask for help, the doors close. What will I do on Friday? Sleep in a car with my children? We can not go back to Puerto Rico. Go back to what? Here I have little, but that little is more than what I had on the island," said the woman, in referring to healthcare services and therapies that her children receive.
Jose Rodriguez, Reverend of Jesus of Nazaret Episcopal Church in Orlando, and one of the most important voices of the Puerto Rican community here, said that this situation reflects the discriminatory treatment of American citizens born in Puerto Rico. "When Katrina, affected families were 23 months under this housing program. But for Puerto Rican families in Florida it has hardly been extended for a few months," said the priest.
"We need for the Florida government to take a step forward in favor of these families. They are only 45 families. I also ask the community in general to help us before the lack the state help," said the minister from the front steps of his church.
Carmelo Almena Torres and his wife, both from Caguas, arrived on November 8 and since they arrived, they have filled out dozens of papers in search of a house. They can not return to Puerto Rico since the hurricane destroyed their house. They want to stay in Florida because here, he can continue his treatment as a prostate cancer patient, but rents in this area exceed $ 1,000 and there are one and two year waiting lists for cheaper rent offers.