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Jose Rodriguez, priest of the Jesus of Nazareth Episcopal Church in Orlando, prays for Margarita Romero. (Carla D. Martínez / Especial para El Nuevo Día)

Orlando, Florida - The absence of state or counties authorities did not stop a group of volunteers and community entities to help 45 hurricane Maria refugee families from sleeping on the streets of central Florida last night.

 Yesterday, the federal Transitional Sheltering Assistance (TSA) program ended for these families.

 Under FEMA’s TSA program, 982 Puerto Rican families that were displaced after Maria, were sheltered until yesterday in 26 US states, 45 in Central Florida and 398 in Puerto Rico.

"In New York and Boston, they took families to shelters, because they had nowhere to go. Only in Orlando no one slept on the streets because communities got involved, and not because the government of Florida did anything, because it has abandoned us," said Jose Rodriguez, priest of the Jesus of Nazareth Episcopal Church in Orlando, one of the leading entities in the search for short and long-term housing options for families in this area.

 The Hispanic Federation, Vamos por Puerto Rico (Vamos4PR) and Abrazo Boricua organizations, as well as volunteers, also joined the effort.

Benjamin Muñoz and his wife Carmen gathered the few belongings they had during their stay in a hotel in Orlando. Yesterday was their last day. They took their things to a friend’s house, where there was no space for them, and headed for the headquarters of the Hispanic Federation in Orlando.

 There, they and the rest of the families received a $ 1,000 assistance. "I really dont have anywhere to go, but with this money I'll look for a cheap little hotel where we can stay. It has to be cheap so we can afford the food," said Muñoz. "That's why I cannot stop crying every day," his wife added.

Hours later, Hispanic Federation employees found an apartment for the couple in Kissimmee. By press time, they were on their way to see the place.

Vilmary Rosado also collected her belongings and those of her two children after months living at the Baymont Hotel in Kissimmee. On Thursday, she moved to a friend´s house in Poinciana. "I bought two air mattresses and put them in the room. My friend will house me there for a while. I filled out an application for Section 8, and on Tuesday I will fill others for some apartments," Rosado said.

 Last night, Lisanda Martinez, her partner and son did not sleep on the streets either. She said that her partner managed to save some money with which, on Thursday, he paid an additional week at the same hotel where they have spent the last 10 months. And with the money she received yesterday, they will extend their stay a little longer.

 Looking for more options

These are immediate solutions while a long-term housing project takes shape outside of the Orlando metropolitan area, where rental and sales prices have skyrocketed due to the high demand.

 Specifically, a score of potential homes in Ocala - about an hour and a half from Orlando - have been identified, with rents between $ 700 and $ 800.

 "We are in the process of inspecting them to make sure that they are safe and adequate," said Freddy Agrait, director of Abrazo Boricua.

 "Also, people from the community, voluntarily and on their own initiative, have gone to the streets to identify places and they have been helping us," added Yanidsi Velez, deputy director of the Hispanic Federation.

 The money that the Hispanic Federation distributed is one of the several programs offered yesterday to the participants. The others include financial advice, guidelines for renting or buying property and assistance with health issues, said Betsy Franceschini, Hispanic Federation senior director in Florida.


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