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The Perils of Being Homeless and Undocumented

Roughly 12,700 asylum seekers are currently in New York City’s shelter system, many of whom are families with children that have arrived to the City in the past few months by bus from Texas and Arizona. Many immigrants are facing obstacles navigating the shelter system as they wait for their asylum hearing.

There is also an unknown amount of homeless undocumented immigrants in the streets and in shelters of the City. Because The Department of Homeless Services of New York City (DHSNYC) does not keep track of an individual’s immigration status, there is no estimated number of how many undocumented immigrants currently live in a shelter. 

Being undocumented while being homeless creates some unique challenges in accessing help. To understand more, Documented spoke with more than a dozen of undocumented New Yorkers who have for years — in some cases, more than a decade — chosen to sleep on the streets of New York City or struggled to leave NYC shelters.

Their stories also reveal the lack of social programs that target this segment of the population, and highlight the different circumstances that a person may become homeless, such as medical conditions, lack of employment opportunities, the COVID-19 pandemic, and natural catastrophes like Hurricane Ida. 

Documented reviewed hours of transcripts to tell the stories, in their own words, of three undocumented immigrants who are currently homeless. Some interviews were translated from Spanish into English, trimmed and edited for clarity. 

These stories came to be with the help of one of our readers from our newsletter Early Arrival. Katharine Mackel, Associate Program Director, Care for the Homeless Program at The Institute for Family Health (IFH), contacted us last autumn to relay the challenges faced by some of her clients who were elderly, undocumented, and faced housing insecurity. 

“We are the City’s dirty little secret”  – Karla, 55, from Ivory Coast

“Being in a shelter was not my dream when I came to America” – Ivan, 60, from Guyana

“I wanted to be deported rather than be homeless in NYC” – Julio, 66, Dominican Republic

Also Read: Guide of Resources for Immigrants

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