NEW ORLEANS – About 12,000 families made homeless by last year’s hurricanes began checking out of their federally funded hotel rooms around the country Monday after a federal judge let FEMA stop paying directly for their stays.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency promised the evacuees from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita that they will still receive federal rent assistance that they can put toward hotel stays or other housing. But the agency will no longer pay for their hotel rooms directly.
Earlier in the day, attorneys for the evacuees pleaded with U.S. District Judge Stanwood Duval for a last-minute reprieve, saying the rent assistance will not be enough for decent living accommodations or continued hotel stays. But Duval denied the request.
FEMA said the majority of those checking out had made arrangements for other housing. But some said they have nowhere to go except their own cars, a relative’s couch or back to a shelter.
Mary Smith looked for a bus to take her to one of the lower-income neighborhoods across the Mississippi River in suburban New Orleans, where she was told she might find a rental.
“I only got my rent check last week. It’s not enough time to find a place,” said Smith, 43, for whom the Crowne Plaza had become home.
Several of those affected said they were heading back to Houston and Atlanta, giving up jobs in New Orleans in search of a place to sleep.
Those who tried to use the rent checks to pay for hotel stays found they ran out of money fast.
At a meeting of state emergency managers in Alexandria, Va., acting FEMA chief R. David Paulison told reporters the judge’s ruling “recognized that we’re doing the right thing for these people.”
“We have caseworkers down there and most people have already received rental assistance,” Paulison said. “We’re working also with some of the apartment owners to rehab some of the apartments down there. We are going to make sure that people are taken care of. But the judge … recognized that the right thing to do is to get them out of hotels and into some decent housing.”