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    Waltham hotel is their only refuge against homelessness

    Darreon Greene, 3, admires the Christmas tree set up the lobby at the Home Suites Inn in Waltham, where nearly 100 homeless families have been placed with area shelters full.
    Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
    Darreon Greene, 3, admires the Christmas tree set up the lobby at the Home Suites Inn in Waltham, where nearly 100 homeless families have been placed with area shelters full.

    When Christmas morning dawns, 154 children will wake up with their parents at the Home Suites Inn in Waltham, a hotel originally built with business travelers in mind but now a way station for families with nowhere else to live.

    Ashley Figueroa Febus, 19, left Puerto Rico with her mother this spring to seek treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital for brain cancer.

    Marquis Gelin, 4, came from Haiti with his father to care for his sick grandfather, but they had nowhere to live after he died.


    Angel Santana, who will turn 2 in a few days, became homeless after his father was diagnosed with a heart condition and could no longer work construction.

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    Ninety-six homeless families live here, most of them in single rooms with no kitchens and only a microwave to cook food. If they are like the families here before them, they will live at the hotel just off Route 128 for about three months, according to an executive with the company.

    Thousands of other homeless families around the state live in traditional homeless shelters, but the shelters are full. So the state pays about $3,000 a month each for families to live at hotels and motels with empty rooms. Waltham has more homeless families living in hotels and motels — here, and at the Homestead Studio Suites — than any other community in the state.

    Kayana Szymczak for the Boston Globe
    Laquita Bullock decorates a gingerbread house for her room at Home Suites.

    As Christmas draws near, parents find themselves trying to manage their children’s expectations. Hotel staff put up a Christmas tree in the lobby, and held a cookie-decorating party.

    But the families who are here have little money to buy Christmas presents.


    Michael Fenn, the inn’s manager, has been working with Toys for Tots to arrange for enough presents to be given to all the children.

    The families who are living at the inn arrived here by many different paths.

    Milagros Febus Rivera, 38, and her daughter, Ashley, moved to Boston in May for Ashley’s treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital. Ashley was diagnosed with brain cancer three years ago, after she had a severe headache and later collapsed. She had surgery and other treatment in Puerto Rico, but she wasn’t improving.

    “Everyone always tells me, ‘Ashley, why don’t you go to the United States? The doctors are good,’ ” she said. So she and her mother flew to Boston. It was the first time Milagros had been on an airplane.

    Ashley was in the hospital for seven days and then released for outpatient treatment. The hospital sent them to the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, which booked them a room at the Home Suites Inn. Their first room was like most of the others here, a single room with no kitchen.


    But Ashley needs to eat healthily to stay strong, and inn officials moved the family to one of the hotel’s suites, with a small stove and a separate bedroom. Their suite, immaculately organized, is filled with ornaments Ashley has made in occupational therapy: a construction-paper wreath, a pine cone and pipe cleaners transformed into a turkey.

    A sign on their refrigerator reads “Paz en la Tierra,” or Peace on Earth. Milagros decorated her daughter’s walker with green tinsel. She bought Christmas decorations at a Walgreens pharmacy, candles decorated with pictures of black-capped chickadees that she cannot light for fear of setting off the hotel’s smoke detectors.

    She carries pictures of her daughter’s scans in her cellphone — chemotherapy has shrunk the tumor but doctors believe surgery is too risky. They travel to the hospital nearly every day, often for therapy to help Ashley regain lost speech and movement. She arrived in Boston in a wheelchair, now folded up in their suite. She walks with the walker, and a brace on one leg.

    Milagros, who worked as a legal assistant in Puerto Rico, struggles with not working during the long days here. She knows just one family in the area, friends of friends from home.

    “The doctors tell me, ‘Your work is your daughter,’ ” she said.

    Milagros and Ashley recently learned they had been approved to move into an apartment in Quincy. The apartment is undergoing inspection and they hope to move soon.

    Although the state had paid for homeless families to stay in hotels and motels in the past, by 2007 nearly all of the families had moved out. But when the economy crashed in 2008, the numbers began to creep up. In the fiscal year starting in July 2010, the state paid for an average of 981 families to stay in hotels, and another 3,000 were living in homeless shelters.

    This year, the number of homeless families living in hotels and motels peaked at about 1,800 last month. For this month, the number has dropped slightly, to 1,729, and state housing officials view that decline with optimism.

    “We’ve stabilized the numbers and now they’re starting to come down,” said Aaron Gornstein, the state’s undersecretary for housing and community development.

    Since he was appointed by Governor Deval Patrick a year ago, Gornstein has worked to keep vulnerable families from losing their homes and seeking emergency shelter. It is much more expensive to help families once they are homeless: The state pays $3,000 a month for each family that stays in a hotel or motel, he said.

    In the current fiscal year, the state put nearly $9 million into a program that gives low­income families up to $4,000 a year to pay for back rent or a new place to live. Since August, the program has given money to more than 1,000 families, Gornstein said. Another new program is giving families up to $4,000 in assistance to leave homeless shelters.

    The state also put $6 million into a rental voucher program, not funded by the state for years, that helps low-income families who are paying rent.

    Like Milagros and her daughter, the Santanas are also Puerto Rican. Angel Santana, the father, speaks no English and feels isolated from many of the other families at the hotel.

    “The language is really difficult for me because I can’t communicate with anybody,’’ the 51-year-old says in Spanish, as his wife translates. “I just have to be in my room.”

    Marilyn Santana, 35, recently learned that she can cook meat in the microwave, by steaming it in a plastic bag. The discovery helped lower their weekly bill for groceries, which they bring back to the inn by bus, since they can rely less on expensive prepared food.

    Pierre Gelin, 50, has also struggled to cook for his young son in their room. They eat a lot of microwaveable rice. Recently, after 10 months at the inn, he learned he was approved for federal Section 8 housing. He hopes to move out soon.

    But later that afternoon, two more women with young children checked in at the front desk, carrying their belongings in white plastic trash bags: Four more guests at the inn.

    Kathleen Burge can be reached at kburge@globe.com.