FEMA abruptly cuts funding for Puerto Rican families staying in Hartford

State and local agencies are rushing to provide services after an abrupt cutoff of federal aid helping a few dozen families that have relocated here from Puerto Rico.

Thirty-six families had been living in Hartford’s Red Roof Inn through a transitional housing program from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Initially, the program furnishing those rooms was set to end this month, but a last-minute intercession by Gov. Dannel P. Malloy’s office last week helped extend that deadline to Feb. 14.

Or so the state had thought.

Word reached state officials Thursday that the FEMA representatives who granted the extension had done so “in error,” according to a letter sent by Malloy to William Long, the agency’s administrator. As a result, the aid ceased, with the state receiving word that “families had begun receiving orders to leave their hotels immediately.”

“This about-face is outrageous and unacceptable, and because of your agency’s abysmal management of this situation, 36 families — all of who are American citizens — are now, with no warning, being told by FEMA that they have no place to live,” Malloy wrote, urging FEMA to “correct this egregious error” and grant an actual extension.

In the interim, the state has instructed the Red Roof Inn, as well as other hotels involved in the program, to allow the families to stay in the rooms, at the expense of the state. Officials said a small fund was found by the state’s office of policy and management to cover the cost of lodging in the immediate future as a more permanent solution is explored. And they stressed that no families were in immediate danger of becoming homeless.

A spokesman for FEMA’s external affairs office did not immediately return a request for comment.

“This sudden reversal is a shocking betrayal of public trust — rescinding critical housing aid to families in need in the dead of winter without even a full day’s notice,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal said in a statement. “I commend the state and local agencies and advocates who are now scrambling to do the job that the federal government has recklessly abandoned.”

Blumenthal, who himself visited Puerto Rico recently, said this mix-up is “further evidence of the federal government’s disgraceful response” to the devastation on the island caused by Hurricane Maria.

“I demand that FEMA do the right thing and reverse course on this dangerous decision to pull the rug out from under displaced families,” he said.

State Rep. Matt Ritter, who helped organize a “work group” of legislators and officials from state agencies to handle issues faced by new arrivals from Puerto Rico, railed against the error Thursday.

“These are people’s lives, so what FEMA considers a paperwork error, people in Connecticut will feel on a tangible level,” Ritter said. “This is just disgraceful.”

Ritter said that the interagency work group is set to meet for the first time Tuesday, and that he hopes this looming issue will be one of its priorities.

FEMA had officially extended its Transitional Shelter Assistance program an additional 60 days in December, according to Becky Szymcik, the individual assistance branch chief for New England’s FEMA field office. However, even with that extension, some of the families staying at the Red Roof Inn in Hartford were deemed ineligible for the program, hence Malloy’s advocacy for them.

That eligibility hinges on the status of the applicant’s home in Puerto Rico. If the dwelling is deemed habitable, FEMA considers an applicant no longer in need of service.

“I understand some of these folks are unable to return right now, and have chosen to relocate here,” Szymcik told The Courant earlier this month. “This is a valid concern. However, the folks who came here self-evacuated, there was no coordinated evacuation by the government of Puerto Rico or through FEMA, so this is a choice that the folks who are no longer eligible have made.”

As of Jan. 8, 615 families were eligible for FEMA’s transitional shelter program in Connecticut; 183 of them were checked in to participating hotels at the time, according to FEMA.

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