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The mess Hurricane Irma left behind in South Florida is mostly cleaned up, but hundreds of displaced families are still living out of hotel rooms four months after the storm hit.
Hundreds more who have not yet found new housing — or been able to return to their former homes — became ineligible this month for the federal government’s temporary hotel program, sending some social service agencies scrambling to make sure families did not wind up on the streets.
There were 4,359 Florida families in hotels on Jan. 3 with the feds picking up the tab. That number dropped by more than 50 percent a week later, down to 2,011 families. The previous week, the number of families in hotels dropped by only 46.
In Broward County, officials say hundreds of families were told they were no longer eligible after the Federal Emergency Management Agency extended the program from Jan. 6 to Feb. 6. In a week’s time, the number of families in FEMA’s hotel program dropped from 318 families to 109 in Broward, from 561 to 280 in Miami-Dade County and from 146 to 52 in Palm Beach County.
The United Way of Broward County identified 105 families who were about to be forced out of hotels and bought them extra time. United Way officials aren’t sure what happened to the other families: whether they were returned to their homes, found new housing, moved in with family members or took shelter in their cars.
“It’s really hard to tell,” said the United Way’s public policy director, Heather Davidson. “Could some of these families be homeless, could they be staying in their cars? We don’t know.”
The city of Fort Lauderdale also is offering hotel assistance to city residents who lost their FEMA eligibility but still need to be in a hotel, Davidson said.
FEMA officials say they’ve worked continuously to make sure participants belong in the program. As the total numbers have dropped in the months since Irma, the agency has been able to do a better job of verifying eligibility, they said.
FEMA spokesman John Mills said there are many reasons a family’s assistance could have been cut off: The family didn’t respond to phone calls or emails seeking to verify its status; their losses were covered by insurance; damage inspections show the family’s previous residence is safe to occupy; or the family has received other housing assistance from FEMA.
“Over the last four months, FEMA has contacted participants regularly to assess needs and determine continued eligibility on a case-by-case basis,” Mills said.
A separate FEMA program provides rental assistance to homeowners and others who were forced out of their homes by Irma. So far, Irma-related rental assistance has reached $130 million in Miami-Dade County, $62 million in Broward County and $33 million in Palm Beach County.
Broward County and 10 social service agencies are providing case managers to help the families no longer receiving FEMA hotel assistance. County Administrator Bertha Henry said the goal is to move them into permanent housing as quickly as possible because of the high cost of the hotel stays — FEMA’s current rate, for instance, is $195 a night for hotel rooms in Broward and Palm Beach counties and $176 a night for those in Miami-Dade.
The families don’t necessarily want to spend any more time stuck in a hotel.
Annette Berry, 59, finally found an apartment in December — with help from Catholic Charities in Palm Beach County — after her family’s South Bay home became uninhabitable due to Irma damage. Before that, she spent nearly three stressful months living with her 91-year-old mother, 70-year-old brother and a cousin in a motel room, first in Belle Glade and then in Clewiston.
The close quarters led to frequent bickering, she said. The family had to go out for almost every meal and they spent their days driving around trying to find a place they could afford to rent — not sure if their home will ever be livable again.
“Everybody wants to go on a vacation, go to a motel, get away from it all,” Berry said. “I do not ever want to see a motel room again.”
Social service providers say most of the affected families were renters when Irma struck. Some lived in places damaged by Irma. Others couldn’t afford rent payments because they lost wages when they couldn’t get to work or when their employers were shut down because of hurricane damage or a lack of electricity. Davidson said some landlords did not hold apartments for their former tenants but re-rented them to others, sometimes for more money.
The families are now struggling to put together enough money to cover a deposit on a new apartment, including first and last month’s rent.
If they have money set aside for a deposit, many are still having trouble finding a place that has a rent they can afford, officials said. South Florida is one of the hardest places to find affordable housing, with the greatest discrepancy between what workers can pay and what landlords charge. Irma was the first major disaster to strike the area since Hurricane Wilma in 2005.
“We know that even before the hurricane, the access to safe, affordable, accessible housing was an issue,” said Seth Bornstein, a senior vice president with United Way of Palm Beach County.
In addition to South Florida residents, local hotels also have FEMA aid recipients from other parts of the state — and from Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria — who could not find places closer to where they lived.
Felicity Collins of Avon Park, in Central Florida, and her 18-year-old daughter are at an Extended Stay America in Deerfield Beach. Collins ran a child care center out of her home, which was severely damaged by Irma. Her home is getting a new roof, but Collins said the interior will have to be gutted because of mold. In the meantime, she has no income and is trying to start a new life and find a job and a place to live, but she’s in an area she doesn’t know and has been told she hasn’t been in the county long enough to receive assistance from most local social service providers. The hotel stay is wearing thin.
“You’re in the same room day in and day out. I appreciate it, because I could be on the street, but at the same time it kind of drives you crazy,” Collins said. “We’re trying to find a place down here, but everything is so expensive.”