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Regional News

Feds 'Dropped The Ball' On Housing Hurricane Evacuees, Says Springfield Official

Evacuees from Puerto Rico gather in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Thursday, April 19, 2018, facing a housing crisis.
Greg Saulmon
/
The Republican / MassLive.com/photos
Evacuees from Puerto Rico gather in Springfield, Massachusetts, on Thursday, April 19, 2018, facing a housing crisis.

Some families in New England who fled Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria nine months ago are still using housing vouchers from FEMA to pay for hotels. The voucher program ends on June 30.

It's not clear where these families will go if they haven't found housing by the end of the month.

Gerry McCafferty is the director of the office of housing for the city of Springfield, Massachusetts. She's in the mix on how housing money from the federal government is distributed around Hampden County.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: So far, we've seen that it's been FEMA organizing funds for families needing housing. Can that HUD money -- the federal housing dollars -- be used for these homeless families from Puerto Rico?

Gerry McCafferty, City of Springfield: There is some homelessness money that we're able to use for these families. Hampden County gets about $3.5 million a year for providing the housing response to homelessness. It provides mostly rental assistance for people who have been chronically homeless.

It also provides something called rapid rehousing, which is some shortened period of rental assistance. So we have repurposed some of those funds to help these families.

Betty Lichtenstein runs Enlace de Familias in Holyoke, a family resource center designated by the state as the entry point for families who have been arriving since October. Lichtenstein told us she has yet to hear a definitive plan from FEMA or MEMA or any other state agency about what happens to families if they wake up on July 1 in a hotel. And the federal vouchers are no more. Who is calling the shots?

I'm not sure that's clear. What we have also heard is that the congresspeople from Massachusetts have been advocating for more response from the federal government. There is a program that has been enacted in other disasters called the Disaster Housing Assistance Program. It became active after [Hurricanes] Katrina and Rita, and it is actually something where housing vouchers are given to people -- long-term housing vouchers, Section 8 kind of assistance, that has not been done in this circumstance. And I understand that given how long it's been, people are saying it's very doubtful that that will happen.

So the problem, as I understand it, is that the federal money that is being used has already been designated long before the hurricane happened.

The homeless response funds -- the $3.5 million that come annually -- come to something called the "continuum of care." This group is looking at this problem, saying, "Can we do anything to assist?" And one of the things we can do is shift some money.

And we've already done this. We've shifted about $209,000 dollars. It's a pretty small drop in the bucket. At the same time, the state of Massachusetts has come in with some additional funds. It's everyone scrambling to pick up where FEMA has just stopped.

So if the chaos of organizing some money, and getting it distributed in time happens, what about landlords? Is there enough housing available?

I'm hearing a mix of things. We're not at a place where there's nothing yet, but it is certainly -- our market has gotten tighter.

And then it is finding landlords who will say, "Yeah, I'll take some months of assistance without knowing how the family is going to pay after that assistance runs out." So it's a risk for landlords.

And I think the other thing is the people who would have gotten this money otherwise. Because we certainly have lots of families who are in housing crisis here. They're competing for the same units and the same dollars.

The only other time I can think of when there was this kind of large-scale disaster assistance that moved people to different places was Katrina. But in Katrina, they did the housing assistance. This time they're not. FEMA came in to create a solution, but then has dropped the ball partway into the solution, and is leaving it to local and state government.

Jill Kaufman contributed to this report.

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