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Residents along the Gulf Coast are watching anxiously to see if Tropical Storm Karen will strengthen into a hurricane. Meanwhile, in New York, almost 300 evacuees of Hurricane Sandy are still living in hotel rooms paid for with taxpayer dollars - but not for long. City officials say the program is expensive and that it's time for the last of Sandy's victims to move out. NPR's Joel Rose reports.
JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: There are about 140 households displaced by Sandy who are still living in hotel rooms. This week they got a letter from New York City officials telling them the city will not pay for those rooms after tomorrow. This was the message they sent back yesterday.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Heck no, we won't go. Heck no, we won't go. Heck no, we won't go. Heck no, we won't go.
ROSE: At a press conference outside city hall, several dozen evacuees protested for more time. Shawn Little is a home health care worker who lived in Far Rockaway, Queens before the storm.
SHAWN LITTLE: Normal people, normal citizens, we had jobs, we go to school. We just basically want to get back to where we were, to the lives that we have.
ROSE: Little says she's close to doing that. She's signed a lease on an apartment, she says, and hopes to move in soon. But many other Sandy evacuees still have nowhere else to go.
JUDITH GOLDINER: A lot of these people are going to end up homeless.
ROSE: Judith Goldiner is with the Legal Aid Society.
GOLDINER: We did not focus our resources after Sandy on making sure the people who were most harmed by Sandy were taken care of, and that's the real tragedy here.
ROSE: City officials dispute that. Michele Ovesey is New York's commissioner for Homeless Services. She says the city went above and beyond, sheltering as many as 3,000 households in hotels over the past year.
MICHELE OVESEY: It's a very generous program. We essentially allowed anyone in who knocked at our door. We have to have some kind of end date for the program.
ROSE: The city tried to end the program back in April, but the Legal Aid Society sued to keep it going. A federal judge issued an injunction but lifted it last week. Now the city says it will stop paying for hotel rooms. Judith Goldiner at Legal Aid says the city is overlooking one of the biggest problems facing all New Yorkers but especially low-income Sandy evacuees.
GOLDINER: In New York City, we have about a 1 percent vacancy rate, and it's lower - much lower - for affordable housing apartments.
ROSE: City and federal officials created a voucher program to help evacuees find apartments they can afford. But Goldiner says some of those vouchers were issued in just the past few weeks, leaving her clients in limbo.
GOLDINER: They are - literally waiting for city bureaucracy to dot the I's and cross the T's and they can move in. But unfortunately, the city isn't willing to wait for them.
ROSE: DHS Commissioner Michele Ovesey concedes that not everyone in the hotels will find alternative housing by tomorrow. But she says the hotel program has helped 1,400 households move into permanent housing since the storm.
OVESEY: We made every effort to keep as many evacuees in the hotel program, frankly, as long as we could, and I think, you know, we've done a tremendous job.
ROSE: Ovesey says the hotel program hasn't been cheap, either. It's cost taxpayers more than $70 million. FEMA is picking up that bill, but it won't reimburse any more hotel stays. At the same time, Irwin Redlener at Columbia University's Earth Institute points out that there are billions of dollars in federal recovery funding that have yet to be spent.
IRWIN REDLENER: We're battling against a very disorganized federal outgo of resources, so the cities are left sort of holding the bag. And even worse than that, the families are left holding the bag.
ROSE: Some of those evacuees may try to stay in the hotel rooms and take their chances in court, while others may have to check into homeless shelters tomorrow night. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York.
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