When a hotel room becomes your home.
Photo: Getty

Ruth Santiago Nieves arrived in Massachusetts from Caguas, Puerto Rico, just a few days after Christmas last year. The 47-year-old suffers from a range of health problems, including diabetes, legal blindness, and depression. She, her husband, and their 16-year-old son couldn’t stay on the island any longer without power and access to medicine in their home. The heat-driven mosquitoes alone were driving them mad.

“We were deteriorating slowly,” she told Earther in Spanish “The way we were living wasn’t right.”

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So they packed up and came to the mainland. With no friends or family living away from the island who could offer them shelter, the family of three has been living out of a Howard Johnson Hotel in Springfield, Massachusetts. The last few months have been especially stressful as their temporary housing aid has come extremely close to expiring under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Luckily, their struggle hasn’t gone unnoticed.

National civil rights organization LatinoJustice filed a class action lawsuit against FEMA in June to extend aid that covers hotel rooms and other temporary shelters until families can secure more permanent housing. Aid was set to expire on July 23 before an extension to August 7 thanks to the lawsuit. On Wednesday, District Court Judge Timothy Hillman heard the plaintiffs’ oral arguments and granted families across the nation another extension to stay in FEMA-covered hotels until August 31.

While these extensions provide relief for the roughly 2,000 individuals who are still receiving federal help through the Transitional Shelter Assistance program, they’re certainly not enough. What families crave—and deserve—are homes, not hotel rooms where they can’t even cook a meal. Santiago said her room has only a microwave and a fridge, so they’re forced to eat microwavable meals.

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She and her husband have tried to find a permanent home, something which FEMA requires program participants to document to continue receiving aid. But neither is working, and they receive little income from social services. They’re relying on some kind of low-income housing to pull through, but they can’t speed that process along. All they can do is wait.

“We don’t want housing completely for free,” Santiago said. “But we also can’t afford a full price.”

The family isn’t willing to return to the island because, despite having no support on the mainland, Santiago and her husband receive better health care here, she said. She also said she can hop on the bus, and people will offer her a seat because of her disabilities. In Puerto Rico, she often felt she was on her own.

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Dakmary Torres, a 31-year-old who hails from the same part of the island as Santiago, doesn’t want to go back either. She’s also been living out of a hotel in West Springfield, Massachusetts since December, but she doesn’t have anywhere in Puerto Rico to return to.

She offered her father her home because he lost his in the storm. When he moved in, she, her husband, and their 5-year-old took just their clothes and traveled to the mainland. Here, Torres at least has her grandma, and her husband has his mother.

“We would like to stay here,” Torres told Earther.

Dakmary Torres (right) in the hotel room with her husband and 5-year-old son.
Photo: Courtesy of Dakmary Torres

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She recognizes, however, that something needs to change soon if her family decides to stay. Neither she nor her husband can find work because employers won’t accept their Puerto Rican identification, and their English needs some finessing. Torres is taking English classes right now, and she hopes that helps.

She’s tired of the waiting, of the uncertainty, and of the suffering.

This lawsuit still has a long way to go, but plaintiffs are hoping the judge will order the government to provide longer-term housing, per the complaint. Rosah Clase, an organizer with the Pioneer Valley Projects in Massachusetts who helped launch the suit, told Earther she hopes to see this case result in the activation of the Disaster Housing Assistance Program, which places displaced people in rental homes rather than hotel rooms.

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Judge Hillman will issue a final opinion by August 31, but parties are free to appeal that decision. If that happens, the case moves to another court, and the battle continues.

In the meantime, Torres and Santiago are hopeful they’ll find a forever home soon.