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Immigrant homeless in Chicago denied government help depend on community efforts to survive: ‘I’m still faithful’

One wintry night a few days before Christmas, Juan Diaz saw an old man limping while trying to sell mazapanes, a kind of Mexican candy, in front of a taco shop on the West Side of Chicago.

Diaz had seen the man before while heading home from work, so he stopped and gave him $20 so that he could go home early to a homeless encampment under a bridge nearby.

“It was very cold,” Diaz said.

The man, Enrique Rodriguez, 60, couldn’t thank him enough. It was more than what he earns in days, he told Diaz. So he bought some tacos and used the rest to buy more mazapanes to sell the next day.

Since then, the two have become friends, and on Christmas Day, Diaz gave the man a gift.

“It was the only one I got,” Rodriguez said in Spanish while sitting under a bus shelter to get out of the cold. “He’s been a blessing in my life.”

Rodriguez is one of about 1,500 Chicagoans who spend their nights in encampments and parks and under bridges, living outdoors year-round. While every one of them faces different struggles and each has a singular story, for Latino immigrants who are homeless — unable to speak English and lacking legal documentation — the road to stability can’t be found in the usual taxpayer-funded channels, leaving individuals and charities to give them a hand.

Nearly two years ago, Rodriguez had an accident at work that left him disabled. A few months after falling ill while attempting to carry a boiler by himself as he collected scrap metal, he also used all his savings on medical expenses and sobadores — masseurs — trying to heal his fractured back.

Because of his immigration status, he didn’t qualify for medical help or any other federal program while he recovered.

After selling his old pickup truck to pay the last couple of months of rent, Rodriguez found himself sleeping in a city bus shelter.

“One day you can be healthy and successful, the next, you can end up like me,” he lamented.

Although he has tried, he hasn’t been able to find a way out of homelessness because he is unable to do physical work, Rodriguez said. Instead, he’s made a home out of an old blue tarp and raggedy blankets under a bridge on Damen near the Pilsen neighborhood.

He relies on walking his white bike to keep him upright as he goes to Damen and Blue Island avenues in the Heart of Chicago neighborhood, where he collects money in front of Raymond’s Tacos. Other times, he sells mazapanes outside nearby grocery stores.

When it is too cold, or he can’t handle the back pain, he stays under the bridge, sometimes going to sleep hungry.

“I’m ashamed to let anyone know how I ended up,” he said. “I hope I can heal and work again to save enough money to go back to Mexico.”

Rodriguez said he immigrated alone to the United States from Guanajuato, Mexico in his early 20s, hoping to build a new life in this country and help out his parents in Mexico.

But his plans failed even after having various factory and restaurant jobs. His parents died and though he has a brother, he lost touch with him after becoming homeless, so he is alone.

“God had other plans for me, but I’m still faithful,” he said.

For several years a few other homeless Latino immigrants, some of them residents of the same camp as Rodriguez, have gathered every day in Pilsen’s Plaza Tenochtitlan, at 18th Street and Blue Island.

They call it “El Aguila,” because of the statue of an eagle that adorns the plaza.

That’s where many of them feel most at home, said Adolfo Morales, who has lived six years in the same encampment where Rodriguez lives. At least 10 other Mexican immigrants also live there.

Many of them began gathering at the plaza because they are day laborers and get picked up for work there. But more importantly, they feel safe there, Morales said. On any given day at least 20 people gather at the plaza.

Most men at the plaza are Mexican immigrants, some are Central American and the rest are African American, said Morales.

“We all know each other,” he said.

It’s where they can check up on each other “to at least make sure that they’re still alive,” he said.

The plaza also has turned into a meeting spot because community members and some nonprofit groups go there to distribute food, clothing, and now face masks and hand sanitizer.

Nicolas Hernandez is Morales’ friend. They live in the same encampment and let each other know where there might be work or people distributing food. They and their friend, Andres Cano, who stays in Dvorak Park, all 50 years old, met at the plaza.

“They are part of the community and deserve respect and to be taken care of,” said Ald. Byron Sigcho-Lopez, 25th, whose ward includes the Pilsen area and Chinatown, where he says encampments have grown in the recent years. ”We often dehumanize each other and for some people, the issue of homelessness is something that they ignore, but the reality is that we need to find a sustainable solution for them.”

In Chicago, there were more than 1,500 people sleeping in the street, including in encampments, at the time of the latest yearly count of the homeless population. City statistics don’t show how many of those who live on the street are Latino immigrants without legal status. Although some in the area said that the number of Latino homeless in Pilsen has decreased in recent years, Sigcho-Lopez said the overall issue of homelessness has worsened because of the pandemic, which has disproportionately hit Black and Latino communities.

Sigcho-Lopez said his ward service office has partnered with the Pilsen Food Pantry, Metropolitan Family Services and other community organizations to try to help some of the homeless population living there, and specifically addressing their undocumented status and language barriers.

“But it’s just not enough,” Sigcho-Lopez said.

Like Hernandez and his friends, most Latino immigrants who live on the street are “past their labor prime,” forcing them into a cycle of homelessness despite their desire to overcome it, said Dr. Evelyn Figueroa of the University of Illinois Hospital, who has advocated for homeless people in Chicago for several years and in 2018 founded the Pilsen Food Pantry as part of that work.

Many of the immigrants who live on the street in Pilsen and other Latino neighborhoods came to the U.S. to work for a better life in their youth, but fell into homelessness after becoming ill, fell prey to addiction because of trauma or have mental illness, Figueroa said.

“They come to a place where they are socially isolated, linguistically and culturally isolated; which makes people really high risk for disorders like depression,” she said.

Substance abuse is the most common disorder among Latino immigrants who are homeless and their traumas and frequent mental illness make it “extremely difficult to overcome it.” Though many government-funded programs and nonprofits offer help for recovery from substance abuse and other medical or mental illness treatment, there are no publicly funded programs that provide housing or long-term resources for immigrants without legal status.

“It is nearly impossible for them to get help from the system and it shouldn’t be that way because they are human beings,” Figueroa said.

Some homeless people in the area used to find temporary jobs and affordable rooms to rent, but that’s no longer the case because of gentrification in the area, Figueroa said.

“Even if they worked in the summer, they just couldn’t save enough to pay for a room in the winter,” she added.

People such as Rodriguez “with no money and undocumented” depend on people like Diaz, or on charitable organizations to offer medical help and a road out of homelessness, she said.

Mirella Rodriguez, a case manager with the Night Ministry, said Spanish-speaking homeless people tend to remain together in neighborhoods they find familiar, because of the camaraderie. Most are concentrated in the Pilsen and Little Village areas, with the rest in Humboldt Park, she said. Many don’t qualify for public aid because of their immigration status.

Even when charitable programs offer food or short-term shelter to anyone regardless of immigration status, immigrants often are afraid to seek it because they fear being deported or jailed, Mirella Rodriguez said. Language barriers and lack of trust keeps them from seeking help, she said. And there are not enough case managers, volunteers or advocates who speak their language, understand their particular situation and perform outreach work.

In Pilsen, the San Jose Obrero Mission, a shelter set up for Spanish-speaking immigrants, closed in 2018 after 30 years. Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said there’s no shelter or community group that’s replaced the mission.

George Ivy understands the tough spot immigrant homeless people are in and before the pandemic, he brought together some of his friends to raise money to buy meals for those who gather at the Pilsen plaza.

Their mission became more urgent when many shelters or churches in the area that provided hot meals closed because of COVID-19, he said.

He also noticed, he said, though most of them were Latino, the rest were African American, “so we had to figure out a way to help them,” said Ivy, who is Black.

Ivy at first made a flyer in English advertising free sandwiches, hot chocolate, mittens and hats at the plaza, but realized that many wouldn’t understand, so he asked one of the men to help him translate the flyers into Spanish. He then passed them out to people on 18th Street and under nearby bridges.

Now twice a month, people begin to gather in the plaza when they notice a small blue car approach.

A few days into the new year, they fed nearly 30 people. As MaryAnn Martin passed out sandwiches, Ivy made sure everyone could get at least one sandwich.

As usual, Morales, Hernandez and Cano were there.

After they grabbed sandwiches, they sat by the eagle, near where someone had left an assortment of shoes on the ground for anyone who needed them.

“Siempre nos ayudan aquí,” said Hernandez as he ate. “They always help us here.”

Sitting in the plaza, Hernandez said that he fell into alcohol dependency after a broken relationship a few years ago.

“But I’m trying to leave that behind,” he said.

Back in Heart of Chicago, Diaz said he realized that he had often wrongfully stereotyped all homeless until he met Enrique Rodriguez. Diaz said his attitude began to change when he saw Rodriguez used the money Diaz gave him only to buy food and more candy to sell.

For his part, Rodriguez said his “biggest dream is to be able to work again.”