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Undocumented and Homeless: “I Wanted to be Deported Rather than be Homeless in NYC”

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

Rommel H. Ojeda

Oct 28, 2022

Depiction of Julio, 65, who presented himself for deportation. Artwork by Kubilay K. Mehan for Documented.

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

Every immigrant who does not have their papers is afraid of going near 26 Federal Plaza. They warn you to cross the street whenever you are by or to take another route. But at that moment I was decided to go, and when a person has decided to do something they are not afraid.

In 2018 I wanted to give myself up for deportation rather than to continue living the life [as a homeless person] in New York City. I don’t know if God said it was not time for me to go back to my country, but I went to the immigration court, waited in line for 30 minutes before I got a chance to speak with the personnel there. I told them I wanted to be deported.

They told me they could not help me with that as I had not committed a crime, and did not have an order to appear in court. If I had a record or had been arrested, then it would be different, they told me. Instead, they suggested I should reach out to organizations to get help with a voluntary departure process.  I left the place and for two years I was looking for places where ICE raids would occur. 

Instead of ICE looking for the undocumented person, I was the one looking for them. I used to go to places where people would be getting detained by ICE in hopes that they would arrest me and send me back to the Dominican Republic. But I am still here, so I guess God had different plans for me. 

Living on the Streets

At that time I had had enough of everything. I had been traumatized, chronically depressed, and alone for more than ten years. I had been living on the streets since 2007 and it affected me deeply, especially my health. Not having a place to sleep meant that I would have to sleep in the trains and the trains at night are very different from when you take the train during the day. 

When people board the train they can move from wagon to wagon, or change to another train with ease. But at three in the morning it gets dangerous. You do not know who is boarding the train with you. One time I took the A train towards Rockaway and I was half asleep. A mumbling voice woke me up and from the corner of my eye I could see that at the end of the wagon there was a couple having sex. They seemed to be in a trance, so I tried my best to act as if I did not notice them. But the guy saw me and started to yell slurs. 

I ignored it and planned to get off at the next stop. I started to time it correctly so that when I got up, I could walk to the furthest door and leave. The guy made his way towards me. I was hoping the door would open just in time for me to get out, but it did not. As I stood facing the door, I felt his fist hit my ribs and I heard a crack. I was unable to breathe. I could not do anything. I was fifty-eight in 2014 and he was very young and strong so scuffling was not an option for me. 

Depiction of Julio, 66, riding NYC subway system. Artwork by Kubilay K. Mehan for Documented.

I left the train and told the MTA about the incident, but I made the mistake of not going to a hospital. At that time, I was afraid of making reports in the police station so I waited two months before I went to the hospital. 

Aside from those types of dangers my health deteriorated. I used to sleep sitting down so when I woke up my feet would be swollen, sometimes my legs would bleed. My shoe size is 9.5 but I would wear two sizes up, sometimes even a shoe size 13 because of how swollen my feet were. Do you remember Popeye? The cartoon? That’s how bad my legs used to be.

I used to have all my documentation, passport, ID and everything from my country. But I started to lose it little by little when I started to sleep on the streets. In this backpack I have what I need the most, my medicine.  Now that I am able to sleep under the room I can keep my belongings. When I used to sleep on the streets, I would wake up and be without nothing. 

Losing Documentation and Shelters 

In my opinion, the shelter is the biggest trash that exists in the system. Do you see all the young homeless people in the streets? It is not that they want to be in the streets, it is that they rather be in the streets than in a shelter. 

In 2009 I was in the shelter at 29th Street in Manhattan and it was worse than a jail. When I say jail, I mean it. Everything is rigged inside. The Mayor’s office announces that they will visit a shelter ahead of time, so the people working there have time to clean it up. There are no regular inspectors going to check and those that go are corrupt, too. 

I went to another shelter located in Lafayette, called the City Rescue Mission. They had 3 people in one room, in a bunker of three beds. Each level was 2ft high. And everyone in the room rotates, so one day I will sleep at the top and the other day I will sleep at the bottom. Which was not bad during the first few days, but then they have a terrible schedule. I had to get up at five in the morning if I wanted to shower. Which is like jail. Five naked men sharing a bathroom. 

And then you have to go down to get breakfast. After we ate we had to leave and be back by six in the afternoon. If you are not back by six in the afternoon, you lose the bed. You will sleep on the floor along with other people. I was never late, but they took my bed from me. When I asked them why, they said they had given it to someone else. After three nights of sleeping on the floor I left Rescue Mission. 

I would say the Rescue Mission was better than the shelter at 29th Street, because the breakfast was warm and seemed to be freshly made. Whereas the 29th served packed food that was cold. The only good thing there was the coffee. 

Hearing Disability, Family and Homelessness

When I came to the United States in 1990, I came with a tourist visa. So I had everything with me but I overstayed and became what is called “undocumented.” I was still able to get health insurance and even got hearing aids for my hearing problems. It was not very difficult to get help from the government back then, it is only after the criminalization of immigrants that it became hard for people to get help. 

I started to lose my hearing back in my country. I used to play baseball since I was nine years old as a catcher. We had no gear or anything, so sometimes the ball would hit my head. I did not make anything of it until, when I was in my early twenties, my mom and father started to grab me randomly and say “hey, are you listening? I am talking to you!” It happened so often that they took me to the doctor and I was told that my ear drums were getting bad— that I needed hearing aids. 

My father loved me so much that he did his best to get me hearing aids. They cost around 800 pesos per piece, which was at that time around a year’s worth of salary. So he could only afford one, for the left ear which is the one that was worse. When I got to the states I was able to get hearing aids for both my ears. 

I was doing really well in the states. I used to make a good salary working at restaurants, earning around 900 dollars a week until 2007. But I used to drink a lot and smoke too. It’s genetics because my father passed away due to being an alcoholic. I have not drank alcohol for ten years, though I know that when you have the genetics for it you can always fall back. I guess I just want to get better so that is why I stay away from drinking. 

I used to drink a lot because I used to feel alone. I had no family here. My parents and my five brothers were in my country and they were dying one by one with me not having the chance to say goodbye. I do feel guilty sometimes, and my wish is that I can go back to pay my respects if God allows. But I used to be very depressed and traumatized that I was losing my loved ones without saying goodbye. 

Julio showing a photo he took from the church he frequently visits. Photo by Rommel H. Ojeda

Even though I have two daughters here with my ex-wife, I don’t really have their support. I am very proud of them that they are studying– my ex-wife did a great job in leading them right, but I don’t really exist for them. I only see them when I have something to give them. We both go on with our lives. If they do in the future help me out that would be on them to decide.

I guess you can say that I am a homeless person that sleeps under a roof. [Two years ago] I started talking to someone from my own country and he saw my situation, he saw my legs bleeding. We met in the streets. He said “that looks really bad.” I told him I had no choice. The system for homeless people is not working. Since then he has been letting me stay at his apartment. 

I shower in the morning and then I leave to walk around the city until he gets back home. I do not have access to the place unless he is there. There is a low-profile mattress on the living room floor where I sleep, and that is all the commodity I have. I am grateful that he is helping me out because living in the streets is cruel.

Even though I may not have everything going for me, I am glad I am at a better place than I was ten years ago– health wise. If I was still drinking, I would not have a place to stay. I would not be able to go to a hospital and sit on a chair, or go to church and pray. I want to live normally and I strongly believe that God has a plan for me. The depression that I had has gone down in the past three years. 

I guess the biggest concern I have is how could I better my situation right now? Because I know I don’t have the backing of the country, because the country is for its citizens. I have my own country, too, but there is nothing there for me. So that’s how I am living my life right now. I am grateful for those who have lent me a hand, my social worker, my friend and those that feed me. 

Also read: Migrants are Wrestling With the Complex Shelter System in NYC

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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