At least a dozen elderly and disabled New Yorkers received letters from federal officials demanding they repay emergency aid money they received after Hurricane Sandy, WCBS-TV reported.
“Everyone asked, ‘Do we have to pay this back later on? Is it a loan?’ They said, ‘No. It’s a gift from Obama,'” 61-year-old Robert Rosenberg 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.”
Rosenberg is one of several residents at an assisted living facility in Queens who were contacted by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and ordered to pay back the money or risk garnishment on their Social Security checks. The agency said the money was supposed to have been used for temporary housing.
But because Rosenberg and his fellow residents were moved to emergency state-funded shelters for four months after the storm flooded the facility, FEMA said, they should not have been eligible for housing aid. Rosenberg, who lives on a fixed income, has until Nov. 15 to repay $2,406 to the agency or file an appeal.
The Associated Press reported that the agency has been “considering” seeking repayments from 35 residents in similar facilities in the Queens area for $108,598 in temporary housing aid since this past July. A FEMA spokesperson, Rafael Lemaitre, said the agency was required by federal law to seek restitution on “improper” payments. She did not comment specifically on cases like Rosenberg’s.
“FEMA remains committed to working with applicants and ensuring they have an understanding of the options available to resolve their debt, which includes making a payment, filing an appeal, requesting a compromise and establishing a payment plan,” Lemaitre told the AP.
According to the AP, the agency has ordered 850 households around the country out of a suspected 4,500 to return payments rendered by mistake, worth a collective $5.8 million.
Rosenberg told WCBS that he felt the government was making “a big mistake” soliciting payment from himself and his fellow facility residents.
“It’s like they pick on the little fishes, the little guys that can’t defend themselves and doesn’t have a voice,” he said. “And I think it’s a disgrace.”
Watch WCBS’ report, as aired on Saturday, below.