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The changes would address “the inequitable distribution of benefits” and help more low-income and homeless people.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency announced last week that it is overhauling how it distributes aid for shelter and food in the wake of a natural disaster. The move is winning praise from advocacy groups like the National Low Income Housing Coalition who say that under the current system those most in need like the homeless and low-income families are often neglected.
“We are on the verge of making the most significant update to survivor assistance in the last 20 years,” said FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell. The changes, which would go into effect in March, would help survivors “rebuild their lives faster after a disaster,” she said.
To do that, FEMA is creating two new programs that will address some long-standing criticisms of the agency’s disaster aid program. FEMA acknowledged in a document announcing the coming changes that the programs’ requirements have “had the unintended consequence of impacting longer-term needs or resulting in the inequitable distribution of such benefits.”
For instance, FEMA reimburses people for the cost of staying in hotels or motels if they have to leave their homes. But, according to the agency, it does not help people who do not have the cash “upfront” to afford the shelter.
In addition to reimbursing people for hotel stays, the agency provides three months of funding to survivors to rent places to live. But people dealing with disasters have “serious needs aside from housing” and often spend funds on expenses other than rent—something they are not allowed to do. As a result, according to FEMA, when they go to apply for extended assistance beyond three months, they are denied.
To deal with these problems, FEMA is creating the Displacement Assistance program, which will “immediately'' provide money for shelter to not only those who had to leave their homes, but also to those who were already homeless.
The agency also said people’s homes do not have to be damaged to get the help. Those who have had to leave their homes for other reasons like power outages can get assistance. And survivors will still be able to access rental assistance as they look for a new place to live.
The new Displacement Assistance program, FEMA said, is “more equitable and efficient” than helping only those who can “pay their hotel bills upfront.”
Meanwhile, FEMA is also creating a program called Serious Needs Assistance, which is intended to provide money to those struggling after a disaster to help with costs other than rent. The new program will give people $750 to pay for “immediate or serious needs such as water, food, first aid, infant formula, diapers, personal hygiene items or fuel for transportation.”
The program replaces one that currently only offers $500. In a departure from that program, the new one will not dictate how survivors use the money because their “needs will vary.” Also, people receiving the money will not have to submit receipts to the agency.
Providing more help for low-income people is significant because they “recover less quickly than more privileged residents,” FEMA said, citing Federal Reserve statistics that 32% of Americans could not cover an emergency expense.
“FEMA is shifting its thinking,” said Noah Patton, disaster recovery manager at the National Low Income Housing Coalition. “It is significant. It will hopefully open up greater levels of assistance to lower-income disaster survivors.”
The agency is also making other significant changes to provide more help and streamline the agency’s process, Patton said.
Notably, people whose homes are damaged will receive more assistance on top of what they can get through insurance. FEMA said this will create more “equity.”
For example, if it costs $100,000 to make repairs to a damaged home, people getting, say, $42,500 from their insurance will now also be able to get the same amount from FEMA.
Patton says the policy would help those people “who are underinsured and cannot afford better coverage.”
Among a slew of other changes in the 342-page document is that FEMA will do more to help the disabled. Even if they did not have equipment like grab bars or ramps before their home was damaged, for example, the agency will now allow disaster assistance funds to be used to install them.
Kery Murakami is a senior reporter for Route Fifty, covering Congress and federal policy. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @Kery_Murakami