Judge Blocks Federal Evictions of Puerto Rican Evacuees

The Puerto Ricans arrived after Hurricane Maria caused more than $100 billion in damage and rendering tens of thousands homeless

Nearly 1,700 Puerto Rican hurricane evacuee families living in hotels across the U.S. can stay there through at least July 23.

Judge Timothy Hillman of Massachusetts' federal court granted the extension Tuesday. He says a restraining order temporarily blocking their evictions from the hotels will remain until at least midnight July 23, allowing them to stay until checkout time the following day.

Hillman's decision extends the restraining order put in place Saturday by Judge Leo Sorokin.

The program has paid for hotel stays for thousands of Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria last September. The Federal Emergency Management Agency vouchers were supposed to expire last Sunday, meaning the evacuees could have been evicted from the hotels, until Sorokin granted a temporary restraining order on Saturday.

Hillman says he wants to look into the issue further and will decide whether another hearing is necessary.

FEMA said the number of families in its housing program had decreased from 1,722 on Saturday to 420 on Monday.

Ariana Colon belongs to one of those families and has been living in hotels sponsored by the FEMA-run housing program in Kissimmee, Florida, since December. The 20-year-old former nursing student from Bayamon, Puerto Rico, is four months pregnant and is struggling to save enough money for a lease while working at Burger King and paying for child care for her son.

"FEMA didn't let us know we had a certain amount of time," she said. "We received a phone call four days prior to when we last had to move."

She decided to join her boyfriend, who's also an evacuee, in Florida after spending days trying to find formula for her son and not having access to clean water or food on the island after the hurricane.

She said she thinks victims of other natural disasters have been helped more than Puerto Ricans.

"They wouldn't be kicked out, and I'm sure they wouldn't be told to go back to where they came from," she said.

Civil rights group LatinoJustice PRLDEF filed a lawsuit seeking relief for the Puerto Ricans on Saturday. Eight plaintiffs filed a class action alleging unlawful action by FEMA in Massachusetts, which has the highest number of evacuee families seeking federal help after Florida and Puerto Rico.

FEMA is offering to cover flight expenses for approved applicants and their household members. FEMA spokesman William Booher said the agency would comply with the judge's order, but he would not comment on pending litigation.

FEMA's assistant administrator of the recovery directorate, Keith Turi, explained the housing program's background during arguments. He said the program had approved more than 7,000 Puerto Rican households that needed relief from the hurricane. He said case managers from the Department of Health and Human Services had talked with program users about the deadline.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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