No Home, No Papers, No Help: The Plight Of Undocumented Immigrants On The Street

CREDIT: ALEJANDRO DAVILA FRAGOSO
CREDIT: ALEJANDRO DAVILA FRAGOSO

ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to reporting on the state of homelessness in Washington, D.C. This story is part of that series.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Jose Arqueta arrived in Washington D.C. in 2001 after an arduous and dangerous trek from his native El Salvador through Guatemala and Mexico. For three months Arqueta, 47, braved jungles, forests, and deserts to escape poverty and growing violence in Central America.

“We crossed part of Mexico walking. Other times we rode in the back of a trailer truck overnight. It’s not easy. Walking at night through the wilderness, with snakes and other animals. It’s not easy,” Arqueta told ThinkProgress. When he finally got to the U.S. — Mexico border, the plan was to cross from Chihuahua into Texas at night since it was summer and temperatures reach 100 degrees. “When the sun came up, there wasn’t a single tree around,” he said.

He had nothing on him but the clothes on his back. A backpack can quickly become an inconvenience if there’s a need to escape from the authorities, he said. Once in the United States he got a plane ticket and came to Washington, where some cousins lived.

But over time, Arqueta and his family drifted apart both physically and emotionally. While they went to live in New Jersey he stayed in D.C. They were meddling with his life, he said. “I didn’t want to be with them anymore.”

Wherever the night catches me, that’s where I stay.

Without a social net and stable work, his situation deteriorated, money ran short and housing was soon unaffordable. He declined to say exactly when and how it happened, but he found himself homeless.

Now, “wherever the night catches me, that’s where I stay,” Arqueta said. “It’s not hard to be like this, because I don’t feel less of a person.”

Arqueta is one of more than half a million people sleeping in the streets of the United States on a given night. The fact that he is also undocumented isn’t a coincidence. Along with veterans and former criminal offenders, undocumented immigrants are the other major group comprising the rising homeless population.

Unlike other groups, however, no precise national figures exist on the number of homeless undocumented migrants. For one, they are less to likely to identify themselves as undocumented for fear of deportation. Homeless Hispanics are also more likely to spend the night in atypical unsheltered locations like abandoned buildings, according to the Institute for Children, Poverty and Homelessness, making them more likely to be overlooked. Moreover, undocumented homeless immigrants are a daunting population for nongovernmental service providers to help, since federal funding rules and other laws create barriers that make every case a jigsaw puzzle.

Undocumented immigrants are explicitly prohibited from federal programs, thanks to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), a major federal overhaul that restricted immigrant access to welfare programs among other federal public benefits, which listed “housing assistance” as such a benefit. That’s why eligibility restrictions for housing programs, like Section 214 public housing, make it difficult for Arqueta to find a long-term shelter solution.

Homeless shelters, particularly those that are faith-based or nonprofit-based, generally do not ask for proof of identification. But many across the nation do. And state identification cards are difficult to obtain for many undocumented people who may not be able to provide Social Security numbers needed for the application.

North Carolina Lawmakers Are Trying To Take Away The Only ID Undocumented Immigrants Can GetImmigration by CREDIT: FaithAction North Carolina lawmakers are debating a bill designed to kill a program created by…thinkprogress.orgArqueta, for instance, resorts to a local church in the neighborhood of Mt. Pleasant for help with residency procedures and food, as he gets odd jobs every once in a while. Sometimes he works in construction, other times gardening. Lately he’s been out of luck. He hasn’t worked since last year.

For housing, undocumented migrants can resort to organizations like Miriam’s Kitchen, an advocacy group that provides services to the homeless population, and helps homeless people get a roof regardless of their immigration status. The group offers housing through two separate streams, one funded locally and the other backed by federal dollars. The federal money cannot go to benefit undocumented immigrants like Arqueta, but Miriam’s Kitchen can use D.C. government dollars more freely. The funds do not have strings attached and no Social Security numbers are required.

But even that process is difficult.

“With the subsidized programs, the immigrants must be able to present documents to the government, so there’s this very tiny sweet spot of landlords who are going to be licensed and have all the documents that the government’s going to request from them, and also be willing to rent to people who don’t have Social Security cards or documentation status,” Eliot Gold, a Housing Case Manager at Miriam’s Kitchen, told ThinkProgress. And even then, Gold explained, case workers have to find housing accessible to food and clothing pantries that do not require photo identification.

It Would Actually Be Very Simple To End Homelessness ForeverDylan Petrohilos/ThinkProgress by Kirk is doing everything you would expect him to do. Having lost his job amid the…thinkprogress.orgStill, a lack of housing may not be the biggest issue for homeless, undocumented immigrants trying to get out of the cycle. The city provides access to the DC Healthcare Alliance, a locally-funded program to provide medical assistance to residents like undocumented immigrants who are otherwise ineligible for Medicaid. The program covers basic doctor visits, preventive care checkups, prenatal care, prescription drugs, laboratory services, medical supplies, and dental services up to $1,000.

But the DC Healthcare Alliance does not cover mental or behavioral health and substance abuse services. It’s unclear whether Arqueta has these problems, but anywhere between 20 to 25 percent of the homeless population in the country suffers from some form of severe mental illness, the third largest cause of homelessness for single adults.

People with these issues tend to lose their documents often, making it difficult to provide them with legal services. That’s particularly problematic because some undocumented immigrants may qualify for legal status, but may not know it.

We are a society that relies heavily on government-issued ID and Social Security numbers, to do anything.

“We are a society that relies heavily on government-issued ID and Social Security numbers, to do anything,” Dominique Poirier, the director of legal services at the Virginia-based, immigrant rights group Just Neighbors, explained to ThinkProgress. Her organization provides immigration legal services to low-income people who are 200 percent below the federal poverty guidelines. Poirier explained that some people with “no documents whatsoever” may actually qualify to be lawful permanent residents — green-card holders — so in the process of applying for a green card, they need to go get fingerprinted by the federal immigration agency. But to get to the fingerprint appointment, the person needs to present a government-issued ID.

“It’s a catch-22 for people who are either undocumented or who have status, but lack the actual documentation to prove that they have status,” Poirier said. “That’s sort of the story of the homeless. For whatever reason, like they were kicked out of their homes, or their car was towed, all their documents were taken. Or they were drunk and all their documents were taken.”

Back with Arqueta, he said his future is uncertain. “Only God knows where I will be,” he said. What Arqueta knows for sure, though, is that being homeless in D.C. is better than living in El Salvador. “There is no peace of mind over there — too much violence. I rather be here.”

So it may be hard to live without papers, services or a family, but unlike El Salvador, Arqueta said, in the United States “they don’t let you die in the streets.”

Street Outreach Closes The Gap Between The Homeless And Health CareHealth by CREDIT: Shutterstock ThinkProgress has dedicated a portion of our coverage on Wednesday, June 29th to…thinkprogress.org