BELLE HARBOR, Queens – The residents of Belle Harbor Manor spent five months in three different emergency shelters once Hurricane Sandy flooded their home for disabled and elderly residents on Rockaway Beach Boulevard.
But now the Federal Emergency Management Agency has asked at least a dozen of these residents to pay back thousands of dollars in disaster relief aid.
Robert Rosenberg, 61, has a spinal disability and other chronic health problems. He’s been asked to pay FEMA $2,486 after it was decided he was ineligible to receive aid – long after Hurricane Sandy.
“We’re on a fixed income,” Rosenberg told Fox News. “I don’t have that kind of money!”
FEMA justified their demands in a letter to the residents of Bell Harbor Manor, which said that the money was intended for temporary housing, but that never happened because the residents were moved from one state-funded shelter to another.
During the storm, many of the residents were sent to live in hotels, where they slept four to a room. The area they stayed in was so crime-riddled, they were advised not to go outside at night. Afterwards, the residents, many of whom are mentally ill, were sent to a halfway house on the grounds of a partly abandoned psychiatric hospital in Queens, where they bunked on cots and were barred from having visitors in their rooms.
Rosenberg wasn’t aware he could only spend the money on housing. He said FEMA workers never explained the restrictions, so he used part of the money to buy food and clothing, both of which were hard to find after the storm.
“Everyone asked, ‘Do we have to pay this back later on? Is it a loan?’ They said, ‘No. It’s a gift from Obama,'” he said. “If I wasn’t eligible, then why give it to me in the first place? They knew we were living in an adult home. They knew our shelter was being paid for by the state. It’s not like we lied on the application.”
FEMA spokesman Rafael Lemaitre said the agency was required by law to recoup improper payments but did not directly address the residents’ situation.
Rosenberg has until Nov. 15 to pay up or file an appeal.