It’s been nine months since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico, and displaced residents are still scrambling to find permanent housing.
More than 200 families are currently checked into hotels across Massachusetts, relying on FEMA's Transitional Sheltering Assistance that is set to end this month.
Though Yolanda Padilla arrived in Fall River seven months ago, she vividly remembers the September day Hurricane Maria reached Puerto Rico.
"The hurricane was unlike any other hurricane I'd been through before. I was in the house with my children," Padilla said in Spanish. "It sounded like a monster. One of my children was crying and shaking. I could hear animals and people screaming [and] roofs flying over houses."
Initially, Padilla hoped to stay on the island. She was forced to leave because one of her sons has epilepsy and there was limited health care after the storm. Today, Padilla sits in the living room of a first floor apartment she shares with her two sons in Fall River. This place marks the end of her long difficult journey to find stable housing.
She arrived in Fall River on the cusp of a New England winter. "I never see the snow before in my life. I’m very cold and I don’t have car or nothing. I need to start walking in the street with that snow. I see that snow in the street. I’m walking on snow. I can’t believe it," Padilla said.
Over the course of the next six months, Padilla would move three different times.
Initially, she stayed with the few family members she has in the states. She started making a new life. She enrolled her children in the Fall River Schools.
But within months, her son landed in the hospital. There she was connected with a social worker for the first time. That social worker got Padilla into a hotel in New Bedford paid for by FEMA’s Transitional Sheltering Assistance, but that money ran out after less than a month.
Suddenly facing homelessness, Padilla frantically searched online for the cheapest hotel she could find. She checked into a hotel in Newport. Having already enrolled her sons in Fall River public schools, she soon found herself driving between Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
"Every day I come from Newport to Fall River to bring my kid to the school. Everyday go and back," she said. She paid for the first 11 days at the hotel, but her money was running out.
Padilla struggles to fight back tears remembering the call from a local social service agency to determine if she would be able to stay in the hotel longer.
"In that moment, I’m so nervous because I think I’m going to be in the street with my child. And when she told me they were going to pay for the hotel. I feel like God comfort me," she said.
Padilla ended up staying in the Newport hotel for more than 2 months. Then she was approved for a Massachusetts program for people facing homelessness: Residential Assistance for Families in Transition, or RAFT. The money she received allowed her to move once again, this time into an apartment of her own in Fall River.
Padilla’s still learning English, by listening to conversations, speaking with translators. She’s even downloaded a language learning app on her phone.
She smiles as she shows off the app. Her laugh fills the minimally furnished room.
The family left Puerto Rico with only the things they could carry. And she’s beginning to make new friends.
"Yolanda, you’re amazing. I’m so glad that I met you and I’m so happy that you’re such a strong lady," said Yansie Fontanez, community outreach coordinator for Partners for Healthier Community/United Neighbors Fall River.
Fontanez met Padilla at the Fall River Family Resource Center, where many displaced victims of Hurricane Maria went to find resources ranging from translators to help fill out documents to simple necessities like toiletries.
Fontanez says the Center has helped dozens of families get acclimated to life in the states. Padilla says she is grateful to Fontanez for helping her.
"But, that make me more strong every day, more strong. And I know I can do a lot of things for the people," said Padilla.
Padilla says she plans to stay in the states because of the better school systems and health care. And now she’s started working at the center that helped her when she needed it.