Source: Orlando Sentinel
March 29, 2018
By Kate Santich
Hoping to prevent a fresh wave of homelessness in Central Florida, the local United Way on Thursday launched a new Hurricane Maria housing assistance program for displaced Puerto Ricans struggling to cover the initial deposits they need to move into a home or apartment.
“We’ve seen an influx of thousands of evacuees from Puerto Rico, and the stories are heartbreaking,” said Jeff Hayward, president and CEO of the Heart of Florida United Way, who described meeting families who watched loved ones perish in the storm. “When the evacuees got here, what they had been through was unbelievable trauma and devastation. ... But we can help them right their lives.”
The new program — fueled by up to $600,000 in individual and corporate donations — will be strictly for those whose homes in Puerto Rico were declared uninhabitable by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and who are registered with FEMA. They also must be working at jobs that allow them to make monthly rental payments once the deposits are covered.
Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs, who has worked with the United Way on the response for evacuees, said there is no firm figure on how many people will qualify for the program, in part because many Puerto Ricans now staying with relatives here are expected to apply. As of early this month, at least 1,000 families and individuals were still staying in Central Florida motel rooms paid for by FEMA, but that program is set to expire May 14.
Whatever the number of people in need, Jacobs and Hayward agreed, there are not enough dollars to help all of them.
“Ultimately, the housing is very expensive here,” Jacobs said. “It’s very important that, if people want to live here, they find a job and they find housing that matches [their income]. But this will help them overcome that initial barrier.”
Thursday’s announcement came just one day before the state closes the Multi-Agency Response Center — first housed at the Orlando International Airport — where tens of thousands of evacuees have sought help for everything from driver’s licenses to food to housing. Though the number of people coming to the facility has plummeted since the initial weeks, Hayward said evacuees are still arriving. He also said a new group of Puerto Ricans may arrive in the summer, after their children finish school on the island.
“As of yesterday, there were still 150,000 households [on the island] without power,” he said. “And the water that’s coming out of the faucets? We wouldn’t stand for it in our communities. It is still not clean enough.”
The Heart of Florida United Way previously sent thousands of solar lights, water-filtration systems and solar phone chargers to the island.
Hayward said restarting life in Central Florida takes an average of $2,500 to $4,000 — the amount needed to cover first and last month’s rent, a security deposit and deposits for utilities.
“For many evacuees who have been able to find consistent employment, paying the monthly rent is not the immediate challenge to securing an affordable unit,” he said.
But it is still a top concern. Even before the hurricane, the region had one of the biggest affordable housing gaps in the nation.
“I think we’re all worried about what’s coming” when the FEMA voucher program expires, said Shelley Lauten, CEO of the Central Florida Commission on Homelessness. “The United Way program is a great next step, but I’m worried about what the step after that is.”
To qualify for the Hurricane Maria Housing Assistance Program, applicants must be able to provide documentation of their FEMA status and proof of sufficient income to cover rent and basic needs after receiving the one-time assistance. They also must identify an available rental unit in Orange, Osceola or Seminole counties, although Hayward said his agency may be able to pre-qualify people for the program. Payment will be made directly to landlords.
To apply, call United Way’s 2-1-1 help line or text your ZIP code to 898-211. The application process is free and confidential.
The United Way also has partnered with Catholic Charities of Central Florida, which will provide other services to families who qualify for the program to help them remain housed.