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Undocumented and Homeless: “Being in a Shelter was Not My Dream When I Came to America”

Unable to receive vital federal assistance, undocumented homeless immigrants struggle to get back on their feet. Documented spoke with more than a dozen undocumented homeless immigrants whose stories tell of the challenges faced by this segment of the community.

Rommel H. Ojeda

Oct 28, 2022

Ivan, 60, an immigrant from Guyana has been homeless since 2015. Photo by Rommel H. Ojeda

This story about being a homeless undocumented immigrant in NYC is told in Ivan’s own words. It has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Being in a shelter was not my dream when I came to America. I always tried to do good. I went to church, I worked, and I obeyed the law. 

Even in my country of Guyana I kept myself away from trouble. I joined the military to avoid surrounding myself with bad people. The police were very violent with my friends and the opportunities there were very scarce, especially when you have to take care of three children. I would travel long distances to purchase goods and then resell them for profit. I used to take on multiple jobs at once, like cutting timber or delivering soil.

But the money was not enough and my financial situation is what made me immigrate to the United States in the year 2000.


I was alone when I arrived in New York, but I was able to find work immediately thanks to the people that I met. I was selling merchandise at a beauty salon for around six months. Sometimes I also cut people’s hair, but eventually I left after I was hired by a construction company. 

My salary was around 400 to 500 dollars a week. It was under the table, in cash. We would work around 2nd Avenue in Manhattan. At first the tasks were very small, like cleaning or moving equipment. But the obligations started to get more demanding: sometimes they would tell me to break down walls, or go do construction in high-rises. 

Eventually I was hired by another contractor and I worked with him for seven years until the beginning of 2015. I used to clean the Manhattan Community Center at 120 Warren Street. I would work for him all the time. Go anywhere and at any time. He would get million dollar contracts but only pay me around 425 dollars a week. 

Ivan still has the keys from his previous construction job where he worked as a manager. Photo By Rommel H. Ojeda

He gave me a lot of responsibilities. I was in charge of opening all the facilities that we used to clean, I was given all the keys. I was like a manager, and the employer had a lot of trust in me. He told me that eventually he would help me get citizenship. If they told me to do something, I would do it. If I was told to go somewhere, I would go. 

The salary was enough to pay for my rent of $125.00 a week. And to send [remittances] to my daughter and my two boys. But now I can longer send it. I have to take care of myself first. 

They want to come but I am not financially stable to welcome them. 

Glaucoma, Homelessness, and Shelter

In 2015 my eyesight started to get dark at random times. They were cloudy, they were red. There was a pain behind my eyes, too. I was still with the same employer, and was working as hard as I could. But eventually I was not able to work like before and he recommended I should go get my eyes checked.

I did and I found out that I had glaucoma on both of my eyes. He let me go shortly after. 

Because I did not have my documentation I did not have the freedom to look for something stable. I still kept looking for work on the side but the rent just kept getting more expensive. I was paying 850 dollars a month. And since I was unable to work I started to sleep on the street. I lived on the streets for a year. 

You cannot get any rest when you are sleeping on the street. Everybody will try to steal your bag, so you have to keep one eye open. When I used to sleep in the subway the police would come and tell me to leave. The cops would be at stations like Brooklyn Bridge, Union Square and City Hall. 

I would use the public urinals around that area. Whenever I asked them for directions to places where I could shower they would ignore me. I was not even that dirty. 

I knew there was no privacy at shelters, but I wanted to get better so I had to deal with it. I was staying at a Rescue Mission shelter in Manhattan. There were times when people would make problems, but I walked away from them because I was not there for that. In the morning I would leave to walk, walk, and just keep walking throughout the day. 

I was not getting any help until I found [The Institute for Family Health] in 2018. They sent me to doctors and I found out I had [type-2] diabetes. I had to deal with that, too. Sometimes I was missing some of my [medicine] pills [from my bag] at the shelter. 

[My social worker] told me that she could put me at the YMCA shelter and that I could have my own room. I have been staying there since October [of 2020.] There is more privacy and it’s better than when I was at the other place. 

“My spirit is broken but I have to survive”

Throughout the years it’s gotten difficult to walk in between the crowds— my arm may grasp a passerby because of my eyesight. Some people would get nasty. Ask me “can you see?” or “how come you got blind?” I am not a faker. I started using a cane about two years ago because I was bumping into people.  

The doctor said a surgery could help my eyesight, but that it could also make it worse. It will be behind the eyes, where the nerves are. But I feel that if I could eat better that my eyesight would get better. 

When I eat fruits and vegetables I can see a difference. When I eat starchy foods, rice or bread, they tend to get dark and I get pressure behind my eyes. Sometimes the [food pantries] only have rice or bread, so I cannot eat those days. When I don’t eat I get headaches because I cannot take my pills. I have to eat to drink my pills. 

If I get really hungry my eyes hurt sometimes really bad. Sometimes people on the street give me a dollar or two, and I buy steamed fish with that because I have to watch the salts and the sugar. Having a home where I can cook, prepare my own food would be ideal. So that I can take the pills. But not being a citizen of the country means there are stumbling blocks.

I never wanted to live off from someone else. I always worked all my life. I am still looking for work on the side. Some people call me, but they see me and realize that I cannot see very well. If it wasn’t for my eyesight I would be working right now. You tell me what to do and I will do it. 

Even though I have this problem, I still want to do things right. I want to find a job. I don’t want to get in trouble. My spirit is broken but I have to survive.

Also Read: On the Brink of Being Homeless in a Sanctuary City

Rommel H. Ojeda

Rommel is a bilingual journalist and filmmaker based in NYC. He is the community correspondent for Documented. His work focuses on immigration, and issues affecting the Latinx communities in New York.




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