Written by Joanna den Haan, Housing Case Manger at the YWCA Seattle I King I Snohomish
“We are Human. We are Home.” These were the words that one immigrant woman held high during the May Day Immigrant Rights March in Seattle. And these are the words that I have been mulling over for the past few days. In my experience working with undocumented immigrants as a Housing Case Manager, I can resonate with this chant. Most of the undocumented clients I serve have lived in the U.S. for 10-20 years. During this time they have worked, paid taxes, married, had children, and actively participated in their communities. This—the U.S., Washington, Seattle—has become their home.
When I look at the sign again, though, I see the word “home” in a more tangible way. At this point my smile contorts itself into a frown as I think of the families I am working with who are living in shelter and transitional housing, but who are nearing the end of the program; families who were previously on the street, couch surfing, living in a car, or living in a motel for as many days as they could afford. When I think of them marching, I imagine a different sign—“We are Human. We are Homeless.”
THE BURNING QUESTION
I was asked to write this blog post about my experience working with homeless undocumented immigrants and the unique housing challenges they face. Before I address the issue of housing, though, I think it is crucial that I answer what I have termed, The Burning Question. It is the most common question I am asked in regard to undocumented immigrants—“Why don’t they just go get their papers in order?!” I wish I could give you an easy response like “they don’t have time today, but they’ll get to it tomorrow.” Unfortunately, the reality is that most undocumented immigrants do not have a path to permanent residency or citizenship, nor do they have access to any type of visa. Most people who ask the question mean well and have no idea that the U.S. no longer has an amnesty program, that visas are limited in number, and that there are only a few methods of obtaining them at all (most of which involve significant amounts of money). To make a long story short, there are many people in the world who have no ability to come to the U.S. legally. It is crucial that we understand this as we examine the experience of homeless undocumented immigrants in this country.
There is an array of challenges that await undocumented immigrants as they attempt to make the U.S. their home. One of these challenges is obtaining permanent, stable housing. Here are five reasons that many undocumented immigrants struggle with homelessness:
1. Ineligibility for low-income subsidized housing units
Many undocumented immigrant families are low-income and struggle to afford market rate rent. They do not qualify for subsidized housing units that most low-income families benefit from, because these programs are funded by the government. Prospective tenants are required to prove that they are citizens or that they have legal immigrant status. Although mixed immigrant status families are able to qualify for these units, they are only subsidized based on the number of documented immigrants in the household. More often than not this means that the family cannot afford their rent portion.
2. Inability to verify income
Undocumented immigrants can be eligible for tax-credit affordable housing units, but often face barriers in obtaining this type of housing. Many undocumented immigrants are not able to verify their income because they are paid in cash and their employer is fearful of completing verification paperwork. At this time there are limited methods for verifying an applicant’s income.
3. Prejudice and discrimination based on immigrant status
While it is not illegal to rent to undocumented immigrants, many landlords turn away prospective tenants based on the fact that they do not have a Social Security Number. The federal law, however, does not distinguish between documented and undocumented immigrants. They have the same rights as citizens in regard to renting a housing unit. Some states and municipalities have banned undocumented immigrants from renting, but the state of Washington has not.
4. Detention and deportation of a family member
If a wage earner in the family is detained or deported this can put a huge financial strain on the family and impact their ability to pay rent. While they are earning less they are expected to manage their expenses and pay additional attorney fees.
5. Other common barriers: Evictions, Rental collections, unstable employment
Like anyone else living in the U.S., undocumented immigrants are evicted, owe money to former landlords, and experience seasons of unstable employment. These barriers are just another hurdle in the path to securing housing and increasing self-sufficiency.
In light of these challenges, many undocumented immigrants have been homeless at one point or another and some experience chronic homelessness. When these families come to stay at the YWCA/Seattle Emergency Housing shelter they are given the opportunity to address and overcome the barriers that are preventing them from maintaining stable housing. As a case manager it is my job to assist each family in setting goals that will increase self-sufficiency and access to more stable housing. I have found that the best way for me to do this is by listening, brainstorming, empowering and advocating.
Beyond empowering, advocating and providing resources, there is little that I do to ensure that an undocumented immigrant family finds permanent housing. Time and time again I thought I was on my way to a solution when the family walked in with a far better idea that fit their situation in a sustainable manner.
Here is an example of one family’s story: (All names and some details of this story have been changed to maintain confidentiality)
Gloria, her husband Juan Carlos, and their three young children became homeless after they were no longer able to pay their rent due to a job loss. When they moved into the YWCA/Seattle Emergency Housing shelter neither of the adults were employed and they owed over $3000 to their landlord, nearly $2000 of which was charged illegally. After working with an attorney the family ended up paying off a rental collection of just over $1000. During the 10 months that the family stayed at the shelter, both adults found stable employment and they saved every penny they could to be able to afford a car and housing. They had planned for them to save for an apartment, but one day Juan Carlos walked into my office stating that they were going to buy a trailer. This was the first time I had even considered this as a housing option. Juan Carlos recognized that with his significant experience in remodeling homes they could afford to buy a cheaper trailer and make the necessary repairs before moving in. And they did! I was blown away by their capacity to be resourceful, frugal and creative. They looked at what they had and were able to create a sustainable housing opportunity for their family. The story does not end there, though. They have dreams of buying a house with other family members in the near future and they are well on their way to making this dream a reality.
Homeless undocumented immigrants inspire me with their strong work ethic and positive outlook on life. They have learned to be resourceful and think creatively, because they cannot rely on a program or government funds for housing. Some of these families are able to succeed in finding permanent housing like Gloria’s, but many work just as hard and still struggle with chronic homelessness. I wanted to share this story to demonstrate the creative ways in which undocumented immigrants have overcome housing barriers, but it is important to remember that her story is generally the exception.
Overall, we have a long way to go in dismantling the barriers to housing that so many undocumented immigrants face. So where do we begin? In my opinion we must begin by choosing to see housing as a basic human right and undocumented immigrants as humans who should be afforded that right. Until we see undocumented immigrants as people we will continue to discriminate against them and dismiss them. Until we see housing as a human right it will continue to be unaffordable, inaccessible, and exclusive. It is only after we have shifted our mindset that we as social service providers, affordable housing agencies, private landlords, and policy makers can examine our policies and practices as they relate to undocumented immigrants and their access to housing.
If we want to end homelessness in Washington State, we absolutely have to consider what it means to end homelessness for undocumented immigrants.
Please join us as we walk alongside ALL people in their journey out of homelessness.