DEDHAM — Three-year-old Yelismary Peralta plays in the corridors of the Dedham Holiday Inn as if it were home. There is no playground, but the little Puerto Rican girl makes the most of an empty parking lot, laughing while pushing her 1-year-old sister’s stroller.
Sometimes, the toddler tells her mother she misses Puerto Rico. But then she sees the snow fall and informs her mother she’d rather stay in Massachusetts.
In September, Hurricane Maria flooded her family’s apartment. Now, they are among nearly 600 families who have sought refuge in Massachusetts, living in hotels paid for with vouchers from the federal government as of Sunday. FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance Program is currently paying to house Puerto Ricans in hotels and motels in 41 states and Puerto Rico. As of this week, 3,580 families were utilizing the program, with Massachusetts housing the second-highest population of self-evacuees, second only to Florida’s, according to state officials.
But the program is temporary, and though Governor Charlie Baker’s office sent a letter to FEMA Administrator Brock Long requesting that all evacuees from Puerto Rico be permitted to keep the housing vouchers until March 20, many families are anxious about their future as that date fast approaches.
In many instances, FEMA officials are letting families know they’re no longer eligible for the program because inspectors have deemed their homes on the island habitable.
Last week, FEMA announced an extension of the program until May 14 on a case-by-case basis, but the three families interviewed for this story said Sunday night that they had not been offered any more time and were still concerned.
Six months after the hurricane, an estimated 8 percent of the island is without power.
“This is a bridge to other longer-term housing solutions,” FEMA spokesman Daniel Llargues said. “FEMA supports disaster survivors in their recovery process with many different housing programs. FEMA works with private nonprofits to help meet the needs of disaster survivors and to identify additional needs.”
Some survivors spent the holiday season in cramped quarters in Massachusetts hotel rooms with what they could salvage from the storm stuffed into trash bags. Without a kitchen, families are microwaving frozen meals or cooking rice in crockpots on top of sinks.
Nonprofits, housing authorities, and housing advocates are trying to help. Lydia Agro, chief of staff at the Boston Housing Authority, said more than 41,000 applicants are on a waiting list for permanant housing. Displaced families from Puerto Rico are finding waiting periods of one to five years when they apply for public housing in various parts of the state.
“But they’re in line with a lot of other people who are also waiting,” Agros said. That’s what the problem is, there’s not enough housing for the number of people who need it.”
Enlace de Familias is the designated welcome center for families in Holyoke. Executive director Betty Medina Lichtenstein is receiving desperate families from as far as Lawrence and Worcester.
“They’re coming here and explaining the needs they have,” Medina Lichtenstein said. “One is employment, two is housing, and three is medical. People come in really fragile states with terminal illnesses, cancer, and dialysis. What they’re looking for here is to be able to relocate.”
For months after the storm, Yelismary Peralta slept on her grandmother’s floor in San Juan with her mother, Yenitza Rodriguez Fuentes, 26.
They lost nearly everything.
“If we can’t find a home or get into a shelter, we’ll have to go back to nothing,” Rodriguez Fuentes said in Spanish. The single mother’s greatest fear is that she and her children end up on the street.
Rodriguez Fuentes said she chose to come to Boston because of Boston Children’s Hospital. Her 1-year-old, Yelianis Peralta, has Down syndrome and needs occupational and physical therapy. She also has a clogged tear duct, and according to her mother, a planned eye surgery had to be postponed because it had been scheduled for the day Hurricane Maria made landfall.
She spent months after the storm in and out of the hospital with her youngest, not wanting to risk traveling with a sick child. At the end of January, relatives sent the trio off to Boston with $400. Within a few weeks, Rodriguez Fuentes’s money was gone, spent mostly on Ubers and taxis to get to medical and housing appointments. The mother has gone hungry. She’s had sleepless nights. She tried to surround Yelianis with pillows mimicking a crib, but the infant still rolled off the bed three times.
“I want a house for my girls,” Rodriguez said. “I’m trying to be strong, but this has been very difficult.”
Similar frustrations are heard in hotels around the region. In Braintree, Maria Rodriguez calls her situation uncomfortable. She arrived in Boston late last year and found a cleaning job, but was forced to leave it to take care of her 9-year-old son, Jabdiel.
“It’s frustrating for the kids,” she said. “They don’t have any place to play or socialize.”
Her daughter, Yesmarie, 11, does homework on her bed, notebooks stacked on her backpack. She misses the island but loves her new school.
Rodriguez’s partner, Jose Hernandez, said he’s grateful they have a roof over their head. He found a job cleaning in Cambridge.
“In Puerto Rico, I may have had a place to live, but I didn’t have a job,” Hernandez said in Spanish. “Here, I don’t have anywhere to live, but I have somewhere to work.”
In Worcester, Nilsa Albert, 37, and Carmen Albert, 49, share a room with relatives from the island of Culebra. They cook for neighbors because their hotel room has a kitchen. “I want to make a life here,” Nilsa Albert said. “We don’t have income. If I could work, I would.”
They’ve been told to specify they’re Puerto Ricans on every application so people will know that they’re American citizens.
“Something has to happen before March 20th,” said Juan Negron, Carmen Albert’s husband. “They don’t want us to stay here.”
They were recently placed in an apartment. Nilsa has decided to return to Puerto Rico.