De Blasio Throws Lifeline to Desperate María Survivors

Minutes before the mayor’s announcement, Sofía Miranda from Puerto Rico was in a City Hall demonstration asking de Blasio not to leave María survivors behind. (Photo via El Diario)

[Editor’s note: FEMA announced April 20 that it will extend the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program through May 14 for victims of Hurricane María who had been told their benefits would end on April 21. “But the fight is not over,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement. “We will continue to press FEMA to ensure these U.S. citizens have roofs over their heads. Survivors of a natural disaster who have found temporary refuge in our city deserve nothing less.”]

The almost 100 Puerto Rican families who have lived in anguish since the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) announced a couple days ago that they must leave their hotels this Saturday because the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program will stop paying for their housing, got a good piece of news that will calm things down – at least for now.

As the federal agency refused to extend help, arguing that the affected families do not qualify for the benefits because they can go back to the island or receive another type of housing benefit, Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed to bear the cost of the hotels after Saturday, so those families do not become homeless.

José Bayona, a spokesperson for the de Blasio administration, said (…): “New York remains committed to help those U.S. citizens who are already here to recover, and will assume the cost of their temporary housing to make sure that the federal government doesn’t throw them out on the streets.” The official explained that between Thursday and Saturday the city will communicate with the hotels housing María victims.

“The federal government abandoned its responsibility to the American citizens by not extending the temporary housing assistance to 83 families in the FEMA hotels in New York City,” added the spokesman. “Puerto Ricans who survived Hurricane María do not deserve this treatment.”

The news instantly brought joy to Yashira Figueroa, who has lived for months in the Extended Stay America hotel in Whitestone, Queens, and who, filled with pain, had already packed her bags to go back to Puerto Rico along with her diabetes-stricken mother, her partner, and her dog Esmeralda. The young woman, who before the hurricane was the manager of a perfumery in Puerto Rico, was so excited with the good news that she unpacked her bags, hugged her pet and said New York is giving her a new opportunity.

Yashira Figueroa, 29 (with a hat), her mother Luz Mercado, Yashira’s partner Evelyn Luna, 30 and their dog Esmeralda live in the Extended Stay America hotel. (Photo via El Diario)

“This is such wonderful news, because in my despair I thought of going back but now that the city is helping us I not only feel more calm, but I also know that I want to stay here and this is the place where I want to build my life,” said the 29-year-old, who has suffered from depression after the natural disaster wiped out her house. “I only hope that this help will not be for only a couple of days or weeks, and that they can help us in other ways because many of us also need emotional support.”

Before hearing the news, Sofía Miranda, who is lodged in a hotel on Manhattan’s 38th Street, was at a City Hall demonstration with other survivors, activists and politicians pleading for de Blasio to not leave them behind. She was glad about the news, but noted that the help should not be temporary, and greater.

“The way things are in Puerto Rico there is no point for me to go back with my 18-year-old son, who is already studying in a good school. Although I am thankful to the mayor, I’m asking him to give us a permanent and stable shelter, because we need a bigger push in order to get ahead,” said Miranda (…).

Hurricane María victims demonstrated on Thursday in front of City Hall. (Photo via El Diario)

City Hall has not yet explained how long it will pay for the hotels and what will be the follow-up plan for the families. Other city leaders like Bronx Council member Rafael Salamanca said that the local administration needs to devise a more comprehensive plan.

“Now we need to focus on those families we have here, because it’s obvious that the federal government has turned its back on them, (…),” said Salamanca. (…) “The mayor needs to really think about how to move those families while making sure that the kids stay in the same schools in which they are right now, and that there is a broad plan to get them permanent housing,” he said, adding that this issue must be addressed in the budget negotiations.

State Sen. Gustavo Rivera also joined the criticism against FEMA and warned that by abandoning its responsibility toward those families, the “current racist administration” is exacerbating the homeless crisis in the city, with more than 60,000 New Yorkers already living in shelters.

“The problem of homelessness and lack of affordable housing is already severe and this will only make it worse with people who are ill-equipped to deal with it, including the different climate and the trauma of being thrown out of their country because of a storm,” said the Democratic leader, who called on the mayor and Gov. Cuomo to leave their differences aside and work together to fix this. (…)

Daniel Llargués, spokesperson for FEMA, said that the Transitional Sheltering Assistance program is a housing option for a limited-time only. (…) “This is a bridge toward other long-term housing solutions (…),”  he said.


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