Republican Gov. Rick Scott and Democratic U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson – opponents in this year’s U.S. Senate election – both went to Kissimmee Friday afternoon to talk to Puerto Rican residents about their needs.
But while Nelson spent a town hall talking with Puerto Rican migrants’ struggle to find housing, Scott’s town hall mostly roamed other issues from small businesses’s challenges to the safety of children.
Scott’s town hall, which officially was a U.S. Senate campaign event, included Puerto Rican small business owners, pastors and a small handful of active leaders in the Central Florida Puerto Rican community, touched briefly on housing needs, but the governor heard more about concerns involving how small businesses can get more state business, the pardons program, the appearance lately of children panhandlers, and Venezuela.
Nelson began offering them good news and bad news, that the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Friday agreed to extend their temporary shelter program to May 14, but that FEMA declined to extend it into June. Nelson said he, Republican U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Darren Soto had requested that longer extension so that Puerto Rican families who had enrolled children in Florida schools could see them through the end of the school year.
He heard several stories, some of them in Spanish, of Puerto Rican migrants who had come, found work, couldn’t go home to Puerto Rico, but couldn’t find housing in Central Florida, and were stuck living in motels.
Among them, Gustavo Santiago, 47, who’s living in a motel and said he had been terrified that he, among hundreds of Puerto Rican families, was on the verge of being pushed out onto the street Friday, until FEMA agreed to the temporary housing assistance program’s extension to May 14.
Santiago said he and his fiancé and her son came to Florida on Nov. 1 because his house, his car, and everything else he owned was totally destroyed, by ten feet of water, and without a car he lost his job. In Kissimmee, he found a job at a Wal-Mart store, where he’s been working since December.
It’s a challenge, very difficult, this uncertainty of whether people will be extended or not. It’s not like we’re not looking for housing, we are. I’m pretty sure everybody here has gone out there. I’ve been out there, searching. and the response that we’re getting is there is no availability.
“And some of the places where there is availability, we don’t qualify because we don’t make enough money, or we make too much money,” Santiago said. “So what do we have to do? We’re not here for a hand-out…. We’re not here to live off the government. But right now we need help.”
Scott said he, Rubio, and Soto will continue to push FEMA to extend the housing vouchers beyond May 14.
But there is no plan for any immediate next-step housing for the migrants. Scott, too was asked about housing, and he talked of long-term programs to build more affordable housing, particularly in Central Florida and the Florida Keys. But he said there was no interim-step program.
He turned the focus to economic development noting that Orlando’s growth has added 42,000 jobs in the past year.
“Here’s the issue we’re dealing with right now. This state has been growing so rapidly, it’s causing housing process to go up,” Scott said. “And so where our problem when I got elected was we had housing that was being foreclosed on, that’s not the issue anymore. Our issue is housing prices have gone up so much, and it’s difficult to stay up with the growth, when you have 400,000 or 500,000 people moving here a year.”