BOSTON — Puerto Rico hurricane evacuees living in hotels across the U.S. can be evicted in two weeks, a Massachusetts judge ruled Thursday, saying he didn't believe it was the right thing to do but that his hands were tied by the law.
Worcester-based U.S. Judge Timothy Hillman denied an effort to force the government to continue the temporary housing voucher program until all of the evacuees either receive temporary housing or find permanent housing. But he ordered the Federal Emergency Management Agency to keep the program in place through Sept. 13 to give the evacuees time to make other plans.
Hillman said he was forced to issue the ruling because the evacuees weren't likely to succeed on the merits of their case.
"While this is the result that I am compelled to find, it is not necessarily the right result," Hillman said. He said he could not order the government to do "that which in a humanitarian and caring world should be done."
He also urged the two sides to work together to find temporary housing or other aid for the evacuees before the program ends.
LatinoJustice PRLDEF, an advocacy group that brought the lawsuit on behalf of the evacuees, said its legal team was reviewing its options.
Natasha Lycia Ora Bannan, a lawyer with the group, said the government can provide aid to the evacuees through other means, but so far has chosen not to.
"If those things don't happen now, at the judge's urging, what will likely happen is we're going to have hundreds of evacuees become homeless" and looking for beds at shelters, she said.
A FEMA spokesman said the agency is working to notify hotels that evacuees will be allowed to stay until checkout time on Sept. 14, but said there will be no further extension of the programs beyond that date.
The evacuees have been living in hotels on the mainland through the Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program since they fled the island after Hurricane Maria last September. The aid was initially supposed to expire June 30.
As of this month, hundreds of families were still using the vouchers. Many of them are in Massachusetts, Florida and New York.
The U.S. territory's governor on Tuesday raised the official death toll from Hurricane Maria from 64 to 2,975 — almost twice the government's previous estimate.
Attorneys for the evacuees claimed FEMA had provided housing assistance in a "discriminatory manner" because they weren't doing enough for Puerto Rican evacuees compared to how it treated Texas residents after Hurricane Harvey last year.
The federal government said it didn't handle the housing vouchers any differently from those of residents displaced by Texas and Florida hurricanes.