FEMA hotel vouchers ending, leaving displaced students with 'nowhere to go'

Nearly Osceola 250 students could be homeless before school year ends

OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – Hundreds of student evacuees from Puerto Rico who enrolled in Osceola County schools are still living in hotel rooms as of this week, but school officials say they could be homeless next month if the Federal Emergency Management Agency doesn't extend a housing voucher program through the end of the school year.

Central Florida schools accepted thousands of displaced students from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory in September.

The Transitional Shelter Assistance Program, known as TSA, provides short-term lodging assistance for evacuees who are not able to return home. FEMA extended the program through May 14, at the request of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló, however, that's two weeks before the end of the school year.

Osceola County Schools Superintendent Debra Pace is urging Rosselló to ask FEMA to extend it again. 

"We have 249 students living in hotels out on our Highway 192 area," Pace said. "For students to be displace with two weeks left of school, they will have nowhere to go, nowhere to turn."

Last week, the superintendent and Kissimmee Mayor Jose Alvarez, met with Puerto Rico Secretary of State Luis G. Rivera-Marin, who is also the U.S. territory's lieutenant governor, seeking an extension to May 28. Pace also wrote a letter. 

"Hopefully, he's got the governor's ear right now," Pace said.

U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., also sent a letter to FEMA asking for the extension.

According to FEMA officials, only Rosselló can ask for the extension. 

Pace said she doesn't want these students, who already had a rough start to the school year, to wind up homeless before the end of the school year.

"We want them to have the stability of finishing the school year that had a pretty rocky start to begin with," she said. 

Especially for the 11 seniors living in hotels, who she said need to keep their eyes on finishing high school.

"They have worked so hard, their families have been really dedicated to helping them get to that graduation and we want to make sure that nothing stands in the way of that," Pace said. 

News 6 reached out to Rosello's office but didn't hear back in time for this story.

According to FEMA, as of Tuesday, 979 families in Florida are taking part in the TSA program, occupying 1,033 rooms in 164 hotels throughout the state.