November 7, 2008

Homeless Hispanics in New York face somber future

By Mariana Martínez

New York stands at a chilly 50 degrees, as the cold wind creeps up inside the heavy coats of beautiful women in high heels, many of whom are walking casually through Upper West side looking for the next trend.

Right by the door of one of New York’s favorite stores, Filenes’ basement, up on 79th and Broadway there’s a dark dirty figure with his frozen nose dripping over a sign that says, “Homeless, please help.”

From Manta, Ecuador, Juan Carlos Gonzalez finds himself homeless in New York after losing work due to an on-the-job accident.

He is 30 year old Juan Carlos Gonzalez, he has an inserted bolt in his right ankle ever since being in a car accident when he was just 15 years old.

Originally from Manta, Ecuador, he came to New York four years ago, after obtaining a work permit. Since then, he had been working for an air conditioning company hired to work on many of the impressive Manhattan constructions.

“I came from a small town where streets are made of sand, you know…New York always seems like being in a movie, it’s so beautiful.” Until a few months ago Juan Carlos shared an apartment with a couple of friends, had bank accounts, money to send home, and even money left over for a couple of weekend beers.

Until he had an accident on a Manhattan high-rise, injuring his arm and hurting his already injured leg.

“They were paying me outside the books, because this kind of jobs always do that, they never hire by contract, so I agreed” he laments.

After the accident, his employer asked him to lie at the hospital and say he was at home when the accident happened. His employer promised to pay the expenses but he was afraid of city fines.

A month later he backed down on his promise, firing Juan Carlos and at least 10 others with the explanation that work was down.

“I regret doing that, because now I’m on the street” tells Juan Carlos, as he takes two dollar bills from the jar by his feet. “Little by little I spend my savings, many of them with doctors for my leg. I’m so worried they will have to cut it or it simply not work well and I will be left limping for the rest of my life. I hope I can see a doctor soon”.

Following his friends advice, Juan Carlos is sleeping on the streets, instead of parks or trains, so he can be can be identified as homeless by the city workers, and taken to a shelter where, he hopes, he can see a doctor.

“I was told I need to be seen sleeping in the streets for two weeks straight so they will take me to a shelter” he explains, “I can’t sleep on train stations or any other place, it has to be on the street so they see I truly have no place to go… I need a doctor because I feel like the bolt moved inside my ankle.”

Juan Carlos speaks of many that are in his same situation.

“My next door neighbors, my ex-coworkers…two of my friends who had never been homeless just got into two shelters, one on 103 and another on 106 street” he said.

Government statistics both nationwide and in the city of New York indicate a very low percentage of homeless people living in shelters are Hispanic or Latin American immigrants.

But recent studies both from academic institutions and non-profits say the population of homeless Hispanics is underestimated because of their tendency to remain outside common governmental entities dealing with this problem.

“Mexican-born homeless may be systematically under-counted in homeless samples because they are more likely to exist outside traditional homeless spaces,” concludes a study called “Hidden Hispanic Homelessness in Los Angeles: The “Latino Paradox” Revisited by Stephen J. Conroy from University of West Florida and David M. Heer from University of Southern California.

Caritas foundation states on their website (, that “the lack of bilingual staff is one reason some Hispanics and agency providers believe that the Hispanic homeless population is underestimated and underserved.”

But the language barrier is not the only reason that it is difficult to gauge the extent of homelessness among Hispanics.

A lot of families would qualify for homeless programs but don’t because they aren’t comfortable with shelters, because Hispanics have a high value for keeping the families together, and many shelters separate men, women and children.

With recent raids and local authorities lashing out at undocumented immigrants, fear is growing for people who might feel services will be denied, and they can even face deportation because of their immigration status.

For Juan Carlos, every day goes colder, and therefore, finding a safe place to sleep even more crucial. He remains at his post with the hope of finding another job soon.

The severe financial crisis has hit hard, but for the working poor, especially the immigrants that lack the knowledge and access to many governmental programs.

For them, the lack of jobs was the last blow that send them into homelessness and poverty, at least until the economy starts to grow back up.

“ If I can’t get into a shelter…well…I will have to sleep on the trains, going up and down Manhattan until sunset. I will not go back to Manta, no matter what,” he says.

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