With thousands of rental assistance checks being distributed to hurricane victims in Florida, state and federal disaster recovery officials are urging recipients to handle the money with caution and use the funds to pay for their housing needs.
Providing the means for temporary housing for disaster victims is the primary focus of the Individuals and Households program of the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Those with damages to their home may be eligible to receive money to pay for another place to live while they repair their home, a grant to help in the replacement of a destroyed home or a grant to help with minimal repairs that will make the home safe and sanitary. In areas where viable places to rent are hard to find, direct housing assistance may be offered in the form of a travel trailer or mobile home.
Justin DeMello, federal coordinating officer, said that experience shows that disaster assistance checks become problematic for some recipients in every disaster.
“This is a time when people are particularly vulnerable and predators are quick to take advantage of them,” said DeMello. “When dealing with hundreds or thousands of dollars, caution is the operative word.”
A letter describing the eligibility decision for assistance, the grant amount, if any, and the intended use of the grant is mailed to each applicant by FEMA. The disaster assistance checks are processed and mailed to applicants by the U.S. Department of the Treasury. Or, if requested by the applicant, the grant is deposited in the applicant’s account through an electronic funds transfer.
For example, in the body of the letter for an applicant who qualifies for temporary rental assistance it will state “Rental Assistance” and list the amount of the grant. This grant is to be used to address the cost of renting another place to live.
To help in locating places to rent, a free service is available online at www.dhronline.org. People who need a place to rent can search the Disaster Housing Resources Web site by location, monthly rent or number of bedrooms.
More information about what the FEMA grants should be spent on can be found in the “Help After a Disaster” booklet sent to all those who registered with FEMA. If an applicant has questions regarding a check received from FEMA, he or she should call the FEMA Helpline at 800-621-FEMA.
DeMello urged those receiving checks to deposit them in their bank account as soon as possible, large sums of cash should not be carried and recipients should never deal with strangers offering check-cashing or deposit services. One of the best ways to secure the grant payment is to give the information required to deposit the money into your bank account — an electronic funds transfer — when you register.
“This financial assistance is intended to ease the pain of serious disaster losses and it is to be used for that purpose,” said Craig Fugate, state coordinating officer of the Florida State Emergency Response Team.
Fugate urged applicants to avoid the temptation to pay household bills with the money or make purchases unrelated to needs created by the disaster. He suggested they keep receipts of their disaster spending and stay in touch with FEMA if their situation changes.
The grants that FEMA provides disaster victims are legislated by Congress to cover certain expenses to help eligible applicants with specific needs caused by the disaster. If an applicant does not use the money for its intended purpose as explained by FEMA, he or she may not be eligible for any additional help.
The “Help After a Disaster” booklet is a reference guide for disaster assistance. The booklet explains how to use the disaster grant, how to make an appeal if denied assistance and many more useful items to help victims move through the recovery process. To view a copy of the booklet online, log on to http://www.fema.gov/about/process/ and open the ” Applicant Guide – Help After a Disaster” in the box labeled “Step 1.”
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