Displaced Puerto Ricans can fly home or stay in Florida with no FEMA housing. They're staying.

Richard Gonzalez, 53, lived at the Extended Stay America hotel in Fort Lauderdale for two months under a FEMA voucher program for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria. Now that the program is ending, he's not sure where to go.
Richard Gonzalez, 53, lived at the Extended Stay America hotel in Fort Lauderdale for two months under a FEMA voucher program for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria. Now that the program is ending, he's not sure where to go. Ellis Rua erua@miamiherald.com

Scattered across a small coffee table in Richard Gonzalez's motel room this week were papers to keep him from becoming homeless. There was a resume in English that his daughter in Puerto Rico had made for him. There was a list of contacts for social service agencies. There was a piece of paper on which Gonzalez had scrawled the phone numbers of a dozen apartments for rent.

But by Saturday morning, after finishing his 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. shift as a dealer at Seminole Casino in Hollywood, Gonzalez was preparing to check out of the Extended Stay America hotel in Fort Lauderdale, his bare-bones home for the past two months.

Gonzalez, 53, planned to drive north to Orlando, where his mother and brother have lived for several years. Like thousands of American citizens from Puerto Rico who fled to Florida after Hurricane Maria last September, Gonzalez doesn't know what comes next. The money keeping a roof over his head is going away, as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's hotel voucher program expires June 30.

What Gonzalez does know is he's not moving back to Puerto Rico — at least not yet. Asked what he will do after this weekend, Gonzalez, whose wife and adult daughter and son still live on the island, began to cry.

"I would like to go to Puerto Rico right now, but to what?" he said in Spanish, explaining that jobs there are nowhere to be found. "I tell my wife: 'What are we going to do? Without work, I can't do anything.'"

FEMA has extended the deadline of its voucher program, known as Transitional Shelter Assistance (TSA), four times since October, sometimes with just a few days to spare. But now the agency has presented a final proposition: Accept a one-way plane ticket back to the island by July 1, or find housing another way.

The vast majority have chosen to stay. Out of nearly 600 families in Florida who were still part of the hotel voucher program on June 26, only 44 had returned to Puerto Rico on FEMA's dime, according to the agency. The latest national statistics provided by FEMA show that, among almost 2,000 families who remained in hotels as of June 2, just 11 had flown home and 180 had expressed interest in doing so.

Luis DeRosa, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce in Miami -- which has been working to assist displaced families in the region -- said FEMA was making a mistake by cutting off hotel aid.

Richard Gonzalez has been trying, unsuccessfully, to find long-term housing in South Florida since fleeing Puerto Rico in January. Meanwhile, he has been living in hotels on vouchers from FEMA, but the voucher program ends June 30. Ellis Rua Ellis Rua erua@miamiherald.com

"If you cut them off, where are they gonna go — the street?" DeRosa said. "This is called forced homelessness by the federal government."

Most of the displaced families in Florida have landed in Osceola and Orange counties, in some cases occupying the lion's share of entire motels in Orlando and Kissimmee. But 46 such families were still living in Miami-Dade county hotels as of this week, the third most of any county in the state.

More than 7,000 families — and over 19,000 people — have participated in the voucher program nationally since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico nine months ago, wiping out its power grid and likely resulting in thousands of deaths. In the weeks that followed, FEMA was roundly criticized for its slow response.

Since then, most families have managed to leave their hotels and either move in with family members, find low-income rentals or return to Puerto Rico. But for the last enduring hotel occupants, affordable housing has felt impossible to find.

"We already have an affordable housing crisis," said Gladys Cook of the Florida Housing Coalition, a Tallahassee nonprofit that pushes for affordable housing in the state. "When you have more people that have no resources that try to get into this system, it becomes more of a bottleneck."

Among those stuck is Ariana Colon, a 20-year-old mother who has a 1-year-old son and another child due in four months. Colon has been living at a Holiday Inn in Kissimmee, the fifth hotel in Central Florida where she and her boyfriend have stayed since Christmas. Colon works a few hours a week at Burger King; her boyfriend works as a barber.

But it's not enough, Colon says. Landlords for one-bedroom apartments and studios have been asking her for three times the monthly rent upfront — first and last month's rent plus a security deposit — something she simply can't afford. And the waiting lists for designated low-income units are typically one to two years long.

Some landlords, Colon adds, have even cited her young son as a justification to turn her away. "They said it's too many people in one place," she said.

Before Hurricane Maria, Colon was living with her grandmother in Bayamón, near Puerto Rico's northern coast. Even though their home wasn't destroyed by the storm, the situation was desperate: Colon spent three days searching for baby formula.

She also saw government officials — specifically, she says, Florida Gov. Rick Scott — say on television that Florida had opportunities to offer for those who chose to come.

"We came here because the government itself said to us, 'Come here, there’s jobs, there’s places to stay,'" Colon said. "Once we got here, there was nothing."

Colon is discouraged but, like Gonzalez, isn't budging.

"I came here and I'm willing to fight," she said. "I didn't come here just to get benefits. I don't want to feel like I came here for nothing."

In recent weeks, Sen. Bill Nelson has called for a new extension of the TSA program, but his pleas have largely gone unrecognized. On Thursday, he made an unsuccessful last-ditch appeal to his fellow senators to compel FEMA to extend the voucher program.

Nelson asked for unanimous consent on a bill he sponsored, meaning it would have passed immediately if no one objected. But Sen. Ron Johnson objected moments after Nelson spoke.

Nelson also called on FEMA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to activate a program called Disaster Housing Assistance, or DHAP, which would provide monthly rent subsidies to some displaced Puerto Rican families through February 2019.

He decried a perceived double standard, noting that the DHAP program was activated after Hurricane Katrina in 2009 but not after Hurricane Maria.

"If it was good enough for the people fleeing New Orleans in Hurricane Katrina, why isn't it good enough for the people that are equally devastated now in Florida, having fled the deplorable conditions in their native island, our fellow U.S. citizens of Puerto Rico?" Nelson said.

FEMA has argued the DHAP program is actually less effective than its alternatives. One option, known as the direct lease program, gives some families the chance to move into vacant properties in Puerto Rico.

"DHAP is not necessary to house displaced disaster survivors," FEMA wrote earlier this month on its website, saying the direct lease program "provides the same housing option to disaster survivors as DHAP in a more efficient and cost-effective manner."

Another option, known as rental assistance, could help families whose homes in Puerto Rico are still deemed uninhabitable by FEMA. The money could be used toward rent, either in Puerto Rico or on the mainland.

But these options have provided no recourse to people like Gonzalez, who say they have done their best to find an apartment but now stand on the edge of homelessness.

On Tuesday, Gonzalez drove from Fort Lauderdale to Miami Gardens for a meeting at Casa Refugio de Miami, led by officials from FEMA and the Puerto Rican government. Two days earlier, Gonzalez had felt encouraged by a phone call suggesting the meeting might help him find a longer-term housing solution. But when he arrived, he said, he felt deceived.

"It was a sham," Gonzalez said. "It was just to ask those of us who are here to go back to Puerto Rico."

Gonzalez did leave the meeting with resources, including contact information for housing assistance programs in Puerto Rico and for anti-poverty nonprofits in Florida. But he says when he tried calling three of the numbers, no one answered.

He likes his job at the casino. It's a position similar to the one he held back home, and he proudly notes that he was named employee of the month for June. In the long term, he sees room to advance there and make more money for his family.

Of course, that's all on hold for now.

"Here, the difficult thing is the apartments," Gonzalez said. "Where will I get help?"

El Nuevo Herald writer Luis Antonio Hernandez contributed to this report.