NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) -- Several assisted living residents in Queens received a shock recently after FEMA asked for reimbursement on aid given out following Superstorm Sandy.
Residents of the Belle Harbor Manor assisted living center in the city's Rockaway Peninsula spent four months after Superstorm Sandy moving through a series of emergency shelters due to flooding at the facility.
Now, the Federal Emergency Management Agency wants at least a dozen of those disabled, elderly and mostly poor residents to return thousands of dollars in disaster aid.
"We're on a fixed income. I don't have that kind of money!'' said 61-year-old Robert Rosenberg, who suffers from a spinal disability and other chronic health problems. "The government is making a big mistake by going after people like us."
Rosenberg said he received a letter from FEMA saying he owed them more than $2,400, CBS2's Don Champion reported.
Jeanette Stith also received one for more than $1,000.
FEMA said the money should never have been paid out since it was meant for temporary housing and instead the residents were moved from one state-funded shelter to another.
Following the storm, residents were forced to move to a huge evacuation center set up inside a Brooklyn armory, then live four-to-a-room at a hotel in a crime-plagued neighborhood, then 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 claims FEMA workers never explained that the money could only be used for housing.
"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.''
Even worse, Rosenberg told Champion the agency has threatened to take it from Social Security checks if they don't pay up.
Already living on a fixed income, Rosenberg said it's not fair.
"Not when you come to us and everybody is encouraging us to take it. OEM, NYSDH -- all the government agencies were saying go for it, it's yours," he said.
FEMA insists it's required by law to recoup improper payments, and said those affected can set up a payment plan, request a compromise or file an appeal.
Rosenberg said he feels he's being forced to pay for someone else's mistake.
"It's like they pick on the little fishes, the little guys that can't defend themselves and doesn't have a voice and I think it's a disgrace," he said.
Rosenberg said he should hear back about his appeal in the next few weeks. If it doesn't go through he said he doesn't know what he'll do.
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