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In April, the agency added more requirements at the request of Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló. The newest criteria disqualified people who had received two months of rental assistance or whose residences were being repaired under Puerto Rico's emergency housing rebuilding program. Rosselló had expressed concern about the "millions" of Puerto Ricans who could be leaving the U.S. territory, creating a "brain drain" on the island.
Hardly anyone met the new criteria, including Santiago Burgos and about 1,800 other evacuees staying in Florida. At the Super 8 motel alone, 43 families would have to pay for their rooms or be forced to leave the motel.
As families were leaving the hotels on the cutoff date of April 20, FEMA announced it would extend the program until May 14.
In the hours before Santiago Burgos was killed on May 3, FEMA made another announcement: The agency had approved Rosselló's request for an "unconditional extension" for families in the program through June 30 and would provide plane tickets back to Puerto Rico for anyone who wanted to go home.
Ericka Gómez-Tejeda, a community organizer with Vamos4PR, says that night, the group organized a prayer to thank FEMA for the extension and celebrate that the protests worked. She remembers Santiago Burgos told her she would be there, but she never showed up.
After the shooting, Gómez-Tejeda and other advocates scrambled to provide resources to the affected families and pay for her funeral.
"María was so positive and funny, like a little firecracker," Gómez-Tejeda says. "Every time she saw me, she told me about some progress she made. She was a woman of action, and she was so proud of her kids. What makes María special, in addition to who she was, is that she represented the best of the families there."
Gómez-Tejeda had met Santiago Burgos about a month before at another protest aimed at FEMA. Vamos4PR helped connect her with a job fair, where Santiago Burgos found multiple job openings, including one for a nurse position at Osceola Regional Medical Center. She just needed her nursing license to be validated by the state. Santiago Burgos also received help from Father Rodríguez – the church paid for the security deposit she needed to get an apartment.
"Betzy had to front three months' worth of rent for the deposit," Rodríguez says. "Anecdotally, we've heard of families paying more than 50 percent of their income to rent. Some of them go as high as 75 percent of their income. We're trying to convince people not to sign these leases, but for some of them, it's the only option they have as working families."
Rodríguez points out that the federal agency has refused to expand its Direct Lease program, which could pay for longer-term rentals, to Puerto Rican evacuees staying in Florida. In December, Rosselló requested that FEMA activate the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which provides rent to eligible families to help pay for temporary housing for up to 18 months and has been used before for disaster victims in the aftermath of hurricanes Katrina, Ike and Gustav. On May 15, FEMA denied that request.