OSCEOLA COUNTY, Fla. – The Federal Emergency Management Agency has extended its transitional housing voucher program, which will allow thousands of Puerto Rican students living in Central Florida to complete the school year without the risk of becoming homeless.
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 families staying in hotels until they can return home or find permanent housing.
More than 1,800 evacuees in Florida risked losing their temporary housing when the program was set to end May 14, two weeks before the end of the school year in Osceola County where many families have been staying.
At the request of Gov @RicardoRossello, @fema has agreed to unconditionally extend the #TSA program. Transportation assistance has also been extended for all #TSA participants. The program will end on June 30th for all participants. pic.twitter.com/M8D55K7RcU— PRFAA (@PRFAA) May 3, 2018
Rep. Darren Soto, D-Fla., tweeted Thursday that FEMA approved to extend the program to June 30 at the request of Puerto Rico's governor.
FEMA will also pay for flights back to Puerto Rico, Soto said.
"FEMA has extended all TSA housing vouchers thru June 30 and will pay for flights back to PR and resettlement on island for those eligible," Soto tweeted. "Our office fought repeatedly for extensions, glad FEMA finally providing peace of mind for struggling families."
The call for an extension was a bipartisan effort by Florida and U.S. lawmakers who heard from evacuees who have been unable to find affordable permanent housing due to a housing shortage. Puerto Ricans living inland have also struggled to find work that pays a living wage.
On April 20, evacuees living stateside learned that their housing aid would terminate as soon as April 21 due to new, stricter eligibility requirements that followed recommendations from Rosselló, according to officials at Soto's office.
The day before those requirements would take effect FEMA agreed to extend the transitional housing program unconditionally for Hurricane Maria evacuees through May 14 buying Puerto Ricans more time.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., who was in Tampa on Thursday meeting with displaced families, said extending the program will allow Puerto Ricans to "at least finish out the current school year."
Gov. Rick Scott said Florida stands ready to help Puerto Ricans in Florida.
"Florida remains the only state with a host-state agreement with FEMA to help families from Puerto Rico," Scott said Thursday. "I also recently spoke with FEMA Administrator Brock Long about our joint efforts to make sure we are doing everything possible to help those who evacuated here."
Sen. Marco Rubio, R- Fla., echoed Scott and Nelson's sentiments about the extra time, but added that this will be the final continuance of the TSA program.
"It is vital that FEMA and HUD work on long-term housing solutions for the displaced Puerto Ricans as I have urged on numerous occasions," Rubio said.