Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
The DoubleTree hotel sits on one of the loudest and glitziest corners of Times Square. The musical "Annie" is playing next door and across the street, tourists line up for discount tickets for Broadway at the red neon TKTS ticket booth. Down the block, Elmo and the Statue of Liberty pose for pictures with tourists. Isaiah Douglas has been taking it all in. "It has been a great experience," said the 9-year-old boy.
Isaiah has been staying at the Double Tree with his mom dad and little sister. But the family is not in Times Square to see the sites. Their story emerges in the elevator as a hotel guest innocently asks Isaiah’s mom, Natisha Laws, where she’s from.
"I’m from here. I’m from New York. FEMA. Because of the hurricane, Sandy," she explained. The tourist from Maryland gasps and asks about Laws' house. "We lost everything," she responded.
Instead of using mobile homes to temporarily house storm victims, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has been relying on rental assistance and hotel rooms. FEMA says close to 5,000 displaced households are currently staying in hotels in New York and New Jersey.
On the 13th floor at the DoubleTree, Laws tries to convince her 3-year-old daughter, Tru, to eat her Rice Crispies. The child sits on an over-sized chair. Her bowl balances on an end table. The room has no kitchenette and the family has been eating mostly dry cereal, frozen meals and McDonald's.
By New York City standards, the hotel room is large. But for a family of four, including a toddler, it’s still cramped. Manhattan high rises and a flashing billboard for the musical "Mama Mia" can be seen from the windows. Mark Douglas, the kids’ father, said he was surprised when a bus carrying storm victims pulled up to this address. "When we saw this, we couldn’t believe it actually," said Douglas.
But six weeks later, the 26 year old said reality has set in and the optimism has worn off.
"Everything around here is real expensive we can’t afford none of this stuff," Douglas said. "So basically we go to Walgreen’s and we purchase what we could off of the food stamps because that’s basically the only place around here that will take that."
The family had been renting an apartment on the first floor of a house in Far Rockaway, Queens, sandwiched between the bay and the ocean. They waited too long to evacuate and water started entering the apartment from windows and doors, Douglas recalled. After getting the kids to safety the young father said he returned to the apartment only to find everything floating. “The couches, the fridge is in the living room. Everything is everywhere now,” he said. A garbage bag of clothes that sits in the corner, a mobile dvd player and a small laptop are all the family has left.
(Photo: Natisha Laws and her partner Mark Douglas along with their kids inside their temporary home – a Times Square hotel room. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)
Douglas said even before the storm his young family was struggling. The kids and their mom had been living in Pennsylvania and moved to be with him in September. But he lost his job not long after and then the storm hit, setting them back even more. On top of that, Laws is 8 months pregnant and Douglas is overwhelmed.
"It’s just my mind be clouded at times," he said. She’s [Natisha] stressed out. She don’t know what’s gonna be the next step so I try to keep her calm at the same time the kids calm at the same time figure out everything that’s gonna commense for the duration."
For Isaiah, keeping calm involves family trips to the mega Toys"R"Us down the street with its gigantic indoor ferris wheel. "We all start talking about the prices and stuff and then we go home and there’s no fighting or anything. Everybody’s calm and relaxed and Tru isn’t running around," the 9-year-old boy explained.
But those moments are brief and Laws said she worries a lot. The family has spent nearly all the $4,900 it received from FEMA on food, transportation and replacing clothes. They have no other income coming in. Isaiah has been shuffled from one school to another and his missed several days. FEMA has given all families until January 12th to checkout. The hotel wants her gone sooner. Law said several others are in the same predicament.
"What’s supposed to happen once you leave this beautiful hotel," she asked. "Like where do you go after that? Do you become part of the shelter system? Do you become part of New York homeless? What comes after FEMA stops helping or Red Cross stops helping"
The young, pregnant mother fears her family will soon be forgotten.