KISSIMMEE, Fla. – On the verge of homelessness, hundreds of Puerto Ricans living in Central Florida are waiting to find out if FEMA will approve a request to extend housing aid for evacuees.
Thousands of people fled to Florida after Hurricane Marie knocked out power across the U.S. territory last year. Many people receive assistance from FEMA's Transitional Shelter Assistance program, or TSA, which helps for families staying in hotels until they can return home or find permanent housing.
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. Last week, Osceola County Schools Superintendent Debra Pace urged Rosselló to ask FEMA to extend the program again to allow students from Puerto Rico to finish the school year.
But on Monday, Puerto Rican families were told that their aid would terminate as soon as Friday due to new, stricter eligibility requirements that followed recommendations from Rosselló, according to officials at Rep. Darren Soto's office.
Under the first extension, Soto said new requirements were added for TSA recipients.
"The new eligibility conditions for TSA recipients are unreasonable," Soto said in a news release. "In Florida alone, 1,800 evacuees will be denied housing extension. I urge FEMA and the Puerto Rico Governor Ricardo Rosselló to extend the TSA program – without any conditions – until at least the end of the school year in Central Florida (May 31)."
Florida Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson and five U.S. representatives have also asked FEMA to extend TSA for hurricane evacuees. Read their letter to the Puerto Rican governor and FEMA here.
Puerto Rico’s ongoing power woes are simply unacceptable – and another reason why FEMA needs to extend its Transitional Shelter Assistance program for the thousands of displaced Puerto Rican families who are still unable to return home. pic.twitter.com/zRXQiXPjJR— Bill Nelson (@SenBillNelson) April 19, 2018
Rosselló sent a letter to FEMA on Wednesday seeking an unconditional 46-day extension to TSA until June 30.
A FEMA spokesperson told News 6 the agency is meeting with Puerto Rico staff today "to discuss new qualifications and a path forward for survivors."
Vamos4PR Florida, a network of stateside organizations advocating on behalf of Puerto Ricans, hosted a protest Thursday in front of the Orlando FEMA offices.
"While families wait for response from FEMA, those who have been notified that they are losing aid risk ending up without a place to live as early as Saturday," a statement from officials with the network read.
Protesters gathered at 1400 W. Oak Ridge Road in Orlando chanting "Puerto Rico will rise up," in Spanish.
David Olmeda was among the group, holding a piece of blue tarp that spelled "SOS."
"I now need FEMA (to) extend my contract here," he said. "I have no house."
Olmeda moved into a Super 8 Motel in Kissimmee after Hurricane Maria hit. He got a part-time job at the Home Depot and his wife has been working as a housekeeper in Celebration. They have a 1-year-old son and Olmeda has an interview for a full-time position next week. He said as he's trying to get back on his feet, having his hotel vouchers expire is like pulling the rug from under his feet.
"If it's only me in the street, OK," he said. "But with my family, it's very hard."
He said FEMA did offer him $814 to cover rent for two months, but it's impossible to find housing for that little in Central Florida.
"In this state, $800 is down payment only," Olmeda said. "I don't need $800, I need housing."
On Friday, as Puerto Rican families began packing up their belongings FEMA had still not issued the extension.
Check back for updates on this developing story.