A U.S. District Court judge for the District of Massachusetts ruled against a preliminary injunction seeking to overturn the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) decision to end its Temporary Shelter Assistance (TSA) program for survivors of Hurricane Maria, claiming that there was no legal basis requiring FEMA to continue providing such assistance to survivors of the hurricane that struck the island on September 20, 2017. TSA provides shelter in hotels or motels for survivors of natural disasters forced to evacuate their damaged or destroyed homes. TSA assistance for individuals and families currently relying on the program for shelter will end on September 13. Those affected must check out of their rooms by September 14 – whether or not they have a safe place to go.
In his decision, Judge Timothy S. Hillman stated, “While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result. However, the Court cannot order that Defendants do that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done - it can only order the Defendants to do that which the law requires.”
In the original legal filing, advocates led by Disaster Housing Recovery Coalition member LatinoJustice PRLDEF argued that ending TSA before eligible individuals secured safe, stable housing would have deprived U.S. citizens from Puerto Rico of their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection as guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment.
“Even as we learn this week that the death toll from Hurricane Maria was nearly 3,000 more than the official government estimate, FEMA still pursued eviction of survivors from their hotels without a safe shelter alternative,” stated NLIHC President and CEO Diane Yentel in a press release on the ruling. “We echo the Court’s sentiment that this is a moral failing by FEMA. Congress can address this wrong with legislation that would require FEMA to provide families with longer-term disaster housing assistance that has been used to help survivors get back on their feet after other past disasters.”
According to reporting in the New York Times, FEMA has spent $92 million on hotel and motel vouchers for an estimated 7,000 families to stay in New York, Florida, and other states. While many have found replacement housing, those who remain on hotel vouchers are often “old or suffering from chronic illnesses, which make it impossible for them to pay for their own housing.”
Since the 2017 disasters, FEMA has refused to activate HUD’s Disaster Housing Assistance Program (DHAP), despite requests made by the governor of Puerto Rico, dozens of members of Congress, homelessness and housing advocates, and survivors. DHAP was successfully deployed in the wake of other past natural disasters, including Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, Gustav, Ike and Sandy. By providing direct rental assistance and case management that gradually tapers off over time, DHAP is designed to overcome the unique housing challenges faced by low income survivors – including seniors, people with disabilities, families with children, and other at-risk populations – to help them get back on their feet.
“This administration now has two weeks to do what it should have done from the start—activate a meaningful, long-term housing plan for Puerto Rico,” stated Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) in response to the decision. “Hotel rooms are no solution to this humanitarian catastrophe but ending this lifeline without a plan to help these families find safe, stable, affordable homes is a recipe for disaster. I have proposed one reasonable solution—the Disaster Housing Assistance Program—but if the Trump Administration stubbornly and arbitrarily continues to reject that path, it is on them to produce an alternative to prevent mass homelessness and chaos.”
If you or someone you know is a survivor of Hurricane Maria and requires assistance in any of the following regions, please contact the organizations listed below:
New York: New York Disaster Interfaith Services, firstname.lastname@example.org
Florida: Faith in Action, email@example.com, and Vamos4Puerto Rico, EGomez-Tejeda@seiu32bj.org
Massachusetts: Faith in Action, firstname.lastname@example.org
Read NLIHC’s press release on the District Court ruling at: https://bit.ly/2PSdTQ3
Read the press release from LatinoJustice PRLDEF at: https://bit.ly/2N74GET
Read article from the New York Times at: https://nyti.ms/2wyvlA8
Read the statement from Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) at: https://bit.ly/2LSX2Jz
Read the decision by Judge Timothy S. Hillman at: https://bit.ly/2C5jUpF
Read the original legal filing at: https://bit.ly/2osm1KI
See an NLIHC fact sheet on DHAP at: https://bit.ly/2tQJjg3
Learn more about the FEMA TSA and HUD DHAP programs at: https://bit.ly/2L2Zsdc