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Federal judge in Mass. temporarily extends housing program for Hurricane Maria evacuees

Eduardo Reyes and his family are among the evacuees from Hurricane Maria sheltering in Massachusetts.
Eduardo Reyes and his family are among the evacuees from Hurricane Maria sheltering in Massachusetts. Erin Clark for the Boston Globe

A federal judge in Massachusetts late Saturday night temporarily blocked the eviction of about 1,700 Puerto Rican hurricane evacuees from hotels across the country, just as assistance vouchers were set to expire at midnight.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s temporary sheltering assistance program had paid for the hotel stays since thousands of Puerto Ricans were displaced from their homes by Hurricane Maria last fall.

A national civil rights group, LatinoJustice, filed for a temporary injunction to halt the evictions Saturday in US District Court in Springfield.

Judge Leo T. Sorokin granted the temporary restraining order, extending evacuees’ time in hotels until Tuesday.

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“The irreparable harm to the plaintiffs is obvious and overwhelming; tomorrow morning they will be evicted and homeless since by definition each plaintiff’s home was rendered uninhabitable by the hurricane in Puerto Rico,” Sorokin wrote in his ruling, a copy of which was provided by LatinoJustice.

A phone hearing has been scheduled for Monday for further arguments on the matter.

A spokesman for FEMA declined to comment Saturday night.

As of June 22, there were 222 displaced households from Puerto Rico living in Massachusetts on the program, state officials said.

“Through the TSA program, hotels and motels across the mainland United States have become the temporary homes of these evacuees, who, as of June 30, 2018, will become homeless,” the complaint stated.

“By discontinuing the TSA program, FEMA is knowingly withholding desperately needed support to these marginalized American citizens, putting TSA evacuees at risk of homelessness and other irreparable injury.”

Since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico last fall, FEMA has spent more than $84 million on temporary lodging for people who had to flee. With the TSA program scheduled to come to an end, many evacuees had to make the choice to stay or return to Puerto Rico, which has still not fully recovered from the hurricane.

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The class-action lawsuit lists several Puerto Ricans who would be homeless if the program ends, since returning is not a viable option for them. The plaintiffs named in the filing are currently living in Massachusetts or Florida.

“The roof was torn off and everything was destroyed. I have no home to return to,” Maria Muñoz, who fled to Massachusetts after the hurricane, said in a press release. “I also have pulmonary emphysema and have had 3 strokes. I cannot return to Puerto Rico since the conditions there are so bad.”

She said she does not know where she and her family of four would go if the program is not extended.

Massachusetts has offered some extensions and assistance to Puerto Rican evacuees who qualify for them, the state said.


Cristela Guerra contributed to this report. J.D. Capelouto can be reached at jd.capelouto @globe.com.