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‘The pandemic hit, and my world came crashing down,’ homeless immigrant says

A growing number of undocumented immigrants are falling through the cracks due to the coronavirus pandemic, some advocates and nonprofits say, and now face homelessness.

Sotero Cirilo airs out a sleeping bag at the homeless encampment where he sleeps in Queens. The 55-year-old immigrant from Mexico used to make $800 a week at two Manhattan restaurants, which closed when the COVID-19 pandemic started, and he ended up homeless. “I never thought I would end up like this, like I am today,” he says.
Sotero Cirilo airs out a sleeping bag at the homeless encampment where he sleeps in Queens. The 55-year-old immigrant from Mexico used to make $800 a week at two Manhattan restaurants, which closed when the COVID-19 pandemic started, and he ended up homeless. “I never thought I would end up like this, like I am today,” he says.
Seth Wenig / AP

Sotero Cirilo sleeps in a small blue tent under a train track bridge in Elmhurst, Queens.

The 55-year-old immigrant from Mexico used to make $800 a week at two Manhattan restaurants, but they closed when the COVID-19 pandemic started. A few months later, he couldn’t afford the rent of his Bronx room, and afterward of another room in Queens he moved into.

“I never thought I would end up like this, like I am today,” he says in Spanish, his eyes tearing up.

Cirilo, who mainly speaks an indigenous language called Tlapanec, is part of a growing number of undocumented immigrants who are falling through the cracks becuase ofthe coronavirus pandemic, some advocates and nonprofits say. They worked in hard-hit industries — such as restaurants, hospitality or construction — and their lack of income has made it difficult to afford food and rent, pushing some out of their homes.

Unemployment among Hispanic immigrants has doubled in the United States, going from 4.8% in January 2020 to 8.8% in February 2021, according to the Migration Policy Institute. These numbers don’t take into consideration immigration status, but activists and social workers say more vulnerable immigrants, who often don’t qualify for aid, are finding themselves without a home.

“I have seen an increase of encampments of immigrants experiencing homelessness in Queens,” says Yessenia Benitez, a 30-year-old licensed clinical social worker who helps these groups. “Each has five or six tents. Right now, they are adapting by collecting bottles. But they are working folks. They want to contribute to society. And, before the pandemic, they were contributing to society. Some of them were paying taxes.”

In Los Angeles, The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights has seen a “significant increase” the past six months in the number of calls to a hotline offering assistance to immigrants, according to the organization’s Jorge-Mario Cabrera.

“We have seen an increase in calls from individuals living in the street, living in cars, living in garages or often living with friends in already overcrowded conditions,” Cabrera says. “They don’t even have money to pay for their phone bills. This is why we are saying that one of the side effects of COVID-19 is, in fact, a complete unraveling of the safety net for undocumented immigrants. While other communities are receiving assistance, immigrants are receiving nothing most of the time.”

Cabrera says many of the immigrants calling are essential workers whose income has been “drastically reduced.”

In New York, Cirilo’s tent is next to others Benitez bought for several homeless immigrants who set up the Elmhurst encampment in September. Next to the tents are backpacks, blankets and bags full of empty bottles and cans for recycling.

Alfredo Martinez, 38, a Mexican immigrant, eats his lunch on the street, where he has been living for more than four months, in New York. “The pandemic hit, and my world came crashing down,” the former construction worker says.
Alfredo Martinez, 38, a Mexican immigrant, eats his lunch on the street, where he has been living for more than four months, in New York. “The pandemic hit, and my world came crashing down,” the former construction worker says.
Seth Wenig / AP

Alfredo Martinez’s tent is green. A Mexican immigrant, Martinez , 38, worked in construction. But his hours were cut because of the pandemic. His lack of a steady income caused friction with a roommate, and he ended up on the street, where he has lived for four months.

Now, Martínez works sporadically as a day laborer, hoping to save enough to rent a room and to afford the 40-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration training course he says he needs to have more steady construction work.

“The pandemic started, and my world came crashing down,” Martínez says. “This is the first time something like this happens to me. But I think it is temporary. I hope it is temporary.”

According to a recent New York City report, there are approximately 476,000 unauthorized immigrants in the city. The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs estimated in the report that 60% of unauthorized workers have lost their jobs or are at risk of losing them during the pandemic, compared to 36% of all workers.

Undocumented immigrants in the country can’t access stimulus help or unemployment benefits even if they pay taxes.

But California gave some cash to unauthorized immigrants last year, and New York lawmakers recently created a $2.1 billion fund to aid workers who lost jobs or income during the pandemic but were excluded from other government relief programs because of their immigration status. The program is the largest of its kind in the United States.

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s most recent report on homelessness, the number of people experiencing homelessness nationwide increased by 2% between 2019 and 2020, or 12,751 more people, marking the fourth consecutive yearly increase. Nearly a quarter of all people experiencing homelessness were Hispanic or Latino.

In Queens, Cirilo, now homeless, says he hopes to move back to Mexico one day.

“My children have asked me to go back,” he says. “But I can’t go back like this.”

Lucio Lopez (left) talks with friends at a homeless encampment in Queens. Unemployment among Hispanic immigrants has doubled in the United States, going from 4.8% in January 2020 to 8.8% in February 2021, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Lucio Lopez (left) talks with friends at a homeless encampment in Queens. Unemployment among Hispanic immigrants has doubled in the United States, going from 4.8% in January 2020 to 8.8% in February 2021, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
Seth Wenig / AP