State Sen. Victor Torres, clergy, and others are joining with Puerto Rican activists in Florida to protest the closures of assistance offices for people displaced by Hurricane Maria last year and to renew attention on their plight.
Torres and the others, including organizers from VAMOS4PR FLORIDA, a network of statewide Puerto Rican diaspora organizations, are calling attention to the commonwealth’s closure of the Puerto Rico Federal Affairs Administration office closed in Kissimmee last month, and to the closures, Friday, of the state of Florida’s Multi-Agency Resource Centers in Miami and Orlando.
The three centers had served as touch-stones for many of the estimated more than 300,000 Puerto Ricans who came to Florida after Hurricane Maria had made their homes on the island unlivable last September.
Torres, the Democrat from Orlando whose district includes Kissimmee and much of the state’s most densely-centered Puerto Rican population, including storm refugees, said the community’s needs for housing, health care and other assistance remains high.
Many of them are still living in cheap motels on assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that is ending, and many of them are losing their shelter, he said.
He said the spotlight needs to stay on.
“We need to continue to focus. We need to continue to push. We need to continue to have people understanding how important it is to support Americans from Puerto Rico who are suffering, who are here, and who are over there,” Torres said.
Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló closed the Kissimmee office of the commonwealth’s federal affairs office, which provided outreach and liaison services, in late February. Puerto Rico also allowed its request to FEMA for the federal transitional shelter voucher program available to refugees in Florida to expire on March 20, meaning emergency housing vouchers are expiring for Puerto Ricans who were using them to pay for places to live in Florida.
Florida is closing its centers, which has provided one-stop access to state, federal, local, non-profit and other groups’ services to 34,000 families at the Miami and Orlando airports [and then from an off-site location near Orlando International Airport, at 6490 Hazeltine Dr.] because traffic had fallen way off for Puerto Ricans going there seeking assistance, according to the Florida Division of Emergency Management.
Those centers will close to walk-ins at 5 p.m. Friday, but state officials said the assistance programs will continue.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott issued a series of executive orders in early October providing a myriad of assistance and red-tape cutting initiatives for Puerto Ricans coming to Florida. He extended those orders several times, and they now run through May 22.
The Florida Division of Emergency Management and other agencies will continue to provide assistance, but are advising Puerto Ricans needing such to contact the FEMA Disaster Assistance Hotline, (800) 621-3362, or the Florida Division of Emergency Management assistance line, (800) 342-3557, or to visit the Hurricane Maria Information page at www.floridadisaster.org/info/maria.
Torres and the activists are expressing frustration principally with Rosselló, contending he has abandoned the Puerto Rican migrants to Florida even after he came to Kissimmee in January and delivered a fiery speech demanding more assistance for storm victims on the island and in Florida.
Torres, whose family is from Ponce, P.R., and who has been back several times to help since the hurricane, said he has sent letters to Rosselló urging him to extend the temporary voucher program, and to re-open the government’s office in Kissimmee.