Experiencing Homelessness as An Undocumented Immigrant

Undocumented immigrants face many challenges when coming to America. Sometimes it can be too much and undocumented immigrants slip into experiencing home instability. With multiple barriers to gaining immigrant status or benefits, they have difficulty finding relief from poverty. 

Those who are suffering through homelessness endure judgment and stigmatization, and for undocumented immigrants, it is even worse. Poverty pushes undocumented immigrants out of their home countries and onto the streets here in America, where they are harshly criticized. In an article called “Covid-19 is Creating More Homeless Undocumented Immigrants in New York” by Rebecca Chowdhury an undocumented immigrant by the name of Alfredo, who had been staying in an encampment, expressed, “A lot of people pass by and look down on us, insult us and criticize us, but we’re not in the streets because we like it here.” Some Americans have a hypocritical view of those experiencing homelessness. According to the Washington Post, “many Americans support increased government aid to homeless people, they also support laws that effectively make homelessness a crime.” Undocumented immigrants are seen as “illegal,” and therefore they are further criminalized. 

In Rebecca Chowdhury’s article, she delves into the pandemic and its adverse effects on the foreign community in Elmhurst, Queens. Undocumented immigrants did not receive government assistance during the pandemic and many lost their jobs and homes. Many have set up encampments and are living on the street, which has been a sign of an increased population of those experiencing homelessness in the area. The city has reacted to these encampments by doing regular sweeps that displace them yet again. Mayor Bill de Blasio stated about the sweeps, “It’s really caused the encampments to become a rarity, but whenever we see a new one, we immediately take it down.” The encampments are not illegal, but the Department of Homeless Services can organize cleanups when they risk people’s safety, for example, if they obstruct a sidewalk. The cleanups have been criticized because they do not fix the problem or aid those that are experiencing homelessness. It only pushes them to the side to be forgotten or cause conflict elsewhere. Undocumented immigrants stay out on the street because they believe it is safer than a municipal shelter where they may house the mentally ill or substance abusers. 

There are many other barriers that block undocumented immigrants from receiving assistance or decent wages. The main source of requirements and restrictions that undocumented immigrants come up against is the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA). According to the requirements, “PRWORA prohibits individuals who are not ‘qualified’ individuals from being eligible for ‘federal public benefits’ (‘qualified’ individuals include lawful permanent residents, refugees, asylees, and others).” Therefore undocumented immigrants can not receive cash assistance and they are not eligible for federal housing subsidies, food stamps, welfare, or unemployment benefits. Many undocumented immigrants who experience homelessness are hesitant to seek services or go to shelters because they are worried when any information is asked about them and recorded. Being “illegal” makes them fearful of getting help and could give them issues when trying to access services. A common barrier is language and culture, which makes it difficult for them to go through the paperwork in order to receive benefits or immigrant status. The main issue with immigrants experiencing home instability is that rent is too high and wages are too low. Wage theft is also common in day labor and low-wage industries, where most undocumented immigrants work. Wage theft is when employers withhold wages or benefits owed to an employee. With all of these problems, there is an understanding of why undocumented immigrants undergo homelessness.

A large number of undocumented immigrants are farm workers or day laborers who live in extreme poverty, have a low level of education, a greater likelihood of illness, higher rates of infant mortality and shorter life expectancies than nearly all Americans. According to the National Migrant Resource Program, 90 percent of all migrant families have an income level that is below the federal poverty level. Migrant farm workers frequently experience homelessness, particularly between picking seasons. Migrant workers can endure homelessness in between agricultural seasons or if there is bad weather, natural disasters or there is a limit to harvesting crops. Their line of work is very sensitive and it can easily land them into difficult economic circumstances. The poor working environments can lead to mental illness, alcoholism, or drug addiction, which can also lead them to experience home instability. Migrant farm workers endure different health ailments and have a larger strain of chronic disease at a younger age than most Americans since their occupation is the nation’s most unsafe, given their harsh working conditions, which include close approximation to pesticides. They experience many barriers in receiving Medicaid, more than any other low-income group, which results in delayed healthcare. According to an article by Joanne E. Lukomnik titled, “Developing Indicators of Access to Care: The Case for Migrants and the Homeless,” only 17 percent of all migrant and seasonal farmworkers use health care centers provided for them. Their poor health can lead to an incapacity to work which can follow with the individual experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, day laborers and farm workers that have some of the most important jobs in our country are suffering from homelessness and poor health due to their horrible working conditions and low wages. 

What type of support are undocumented immigrants who are experiencing homelessness receiving and what more needs to be done? Under PRWORA, undocumented immigrants have no restrictions when it comes to short-term assistance, non-cash emergency disaster assistance or if it is an in-kind service that is necessary to protect life or safety as long as no individual or household qualification is required, which includes nonprofits and charities. In Rebecca Chowdhury’s article there is already some action in motion to help those on the street, “New York State has approved the Excluded Workers Fund, which taxes wealthy residents of the state to expand unemployment benefits to undocumented immigrants, sex workers, street vendors, and other informal workers through a two-tiered program.” There are others in San Francisco also supporting undocumented immigrants to become documented. In Jaya Padmanabhan’s article “Homeless and undocumented: Different sides of the same coin,” Francisco Gonzales uses his experience of representing himself in his own deportation case to help undocumented immigrants, who are stricken with poverty, to attain immigrant status. There are still blockades and difficulties, however, especially when it comes to rental assistance. To prevent more undocumented immigrants from suffering from homelessness we need to protect them from losing their homes. Wages need to be increased or assistance needs to be easily attainable for these hardworking and resilient immigrants. 


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