SPRINGFIELD — The only home the Vazquez Santiagos know on the mainland is a Howard Johnson hotel in Western Massachusetts, where they arrived after Hurricane Maria left Puerto Rico in ruins one year ago.
Within these four walls, Ruth Santiago Nieves, 47, Juan Vazquez Hidalgo, 46, and their 16-year-old son, Luis Jadiel, have celebrated birthdays and New Year’s.
They’ve taken hours to cook rice and soften potatoes in the microwave, watched “Jurassic Park” next to the two double beds. Most days, Santiago Nieves, who is legally blind, does her best to sweep up. She warns her son, who has special needs, not to play outside often or make too much noise. She doesn’t want to take any risks. They’ve lost too much already.
“I always tell them, ‘stay inside because this is our roof and we have to protect it,’ ” Santiago Nieves said in Spanish.
Last Thursday was the anniversary of the storm that brought the family and so many others stateside. Hurricane Maria’s Category-4 winds ripped across Puerto Rico, its flood waters leaving thousands homeless. Officials say the death toll was nearly 3,000.
The family remembers nights sleeping in their car to get relief from the heat and insects. Days were spent waiting hours for food, water, and gas.
“We’d lived through hurricanes Category 1, 2, maybe even 3,” Vazquez Hidalgo said in Spanish. “But that monster was something else.”
A hotel room thousands of miles from home was a welcome refuge. More than 7,000 evacuees from Puerto Rico got housing help through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Temporary Sheltering Assistance program.
Most expected a short hotel stay. But many have spent months cloistered in one bedroom, cooking meals on hot plates next to the toilet, unable to obtain permanent housing.
FEMA spent more than $100 million in the last year, including housing Puerto Rico evacuees in hotels and motels across the country, according to agency data. In many cases, without identification, a permanent address, or financial assistance, evacuees struggled to apply for jobs and find housing.
The last of the FEMA-funded extensions of the Temporary Sheltering Assistance program ended Sept. 14. But in Massachusetts, the state has taken over paying for hotel rooms of Puerto Rico evacuees through the Massachusetts Evacuee Transitional Assistance Reserve program, on a case-by-case basis.
A Springfield-based regional housing nonprofit, Way Finders, received funding from the state in June to hire staff and provide up to $8,000 for families and up to $4,000 for households without dependents to pay for expenses related to rent and basic furniture. They’ve helped 41 families find housing and work. They’re down to 68 families in the area, said Kenny Castro, program manager with Way Finders.
FEMA data show 124 families in hotels across Massachusetts as of Sept. 13. As of that week, there were 70 households supported by the Commonwealth.
“We’ve taken big strides,” Castro said. “I don’t want to go into the holidays and still have families in hotels. I want these families to do the holidays in their own place.”
Way Finders has partnered with other local nonprofits. Rosah Clase, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Project, a grass-roots organization that has helped families, reached out to the school district to have buses pick up children at the hotels.
“Landlords didn’t want to give apartments to these families because they wanted to know how they would pay through the year,” Clase said in Spanish. “We started a campaign to find work for those that could work and we negotiated with landlords.”
Daisy Andujar, 36, and her husband, Ramon Siaca, 37, still can’t believe they have a home.
It took five months to find an apartment for their family of five. Her husband got a maintenance job cleaning overnight. They slept in shelters after Maria, on the floor of their flooded home in Bayamón, and on the floor of her brother’s house in Orlando before receiving the housing vouchers from FEMA and coming to Massachusetts.
“When we arrived to the hotel and the kids saw the bed, it was like seeing glory after sleeping on the floor for months,” Andujar said. “But once the days passed and we were inside, to see them sleeping three to a bed, sometimes eating, sometimes not. They couldn’t play. We couldn’t cook.”
The first meal they had in their new home was rice, beans, pork chops, and salad.
That is what the Rivera family is looking forward to: preparing a fresh meal. They’ve lived in the Clarion Hotel in West Springfield since March. Five adults sleep in one room: Jose Rivera, 50, and his wife, Providencia Ramos, 63, on one bed; his son, Anthony Rivera, 22, and his wife, Ines, 23, on the other. Jose Rivera’s 24-year-old daughter, Dayanira, sleeps on a inflatable mattress on the floor. This summer, other families at hotels in the region threw Ines a baby shower. They go to church every week and pray for a home.
“My greatest wish is to leave here, to have an apartment,” Jose Rivera said in Spanish. “That’s all anyone wants. The trouble is the obstacles that have been placed in the way since we arrived.”
The couple found a gently used stroller at a Stop & Shop. Four days before the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, Ines gave birth to a healthy baby girl.
She doesn’t want her little girl to begin life in a crowded hotel room.
Meanwhile, they try to make a home — just like the Vazquez Santiagos.
On the mirror, Luis Jadiel put a note in English that reads: “Have a great day.”
He loves his new school and the engineering class that showed him how to build an airplane out of cardboard, duct tape, and a fidget spinner. They teach the hotel housekeepers, who wash their sheets, bits of Spanish in a friendly exchange of language. Luis Jadiel pours his collection of Hot Wheel cars on the bed and keeps his collection of Pez dispensers on top of the mirror. Sometimes the parents and their son all lie on one of the beds, play music, and just listen. These are rare moments of wonder.
“We don’t want anything for free,” Santiago Nieves said. “We’re trying to pay our bills so my husband can build up his credit and we can eventually live a more stable life here.”