Immigrants a Largely Hidden Segment of L.A.'s Homeless Population
Homeless men tuck into a homemade evening meal at Proyecto Pastoral on July 13, 2016. The organization has been providing 90-day temporary shelter and meals to homeless men for years. (Dan Tuffs/KPCC)
Los Angeles County's growing homeless population includes one group that’s not so visible: immigrants who came to the United States to earn a better living but couldn’t, and are ending up without shelter.
On any given day at a Cypress Park Community Job Center, located in the parking lot of a busy Home Depot, some of the day laborers waiting for work don't have a home.
“A lot of them are staying on the streets," said Luis Valentan, who manages the day labor center, which is run by Instituto de Educacion Popular del Sur de California, a community nonprofit. "We know a couple of workers that sleep in the back of a truck or under a bridge, or in a park," he said.
Among the day laborers is a 51-year-old man who goes by Alonso. He did not want to use his full name because he doesn't have legal status and he does not want this family to know he's homeless. He said he's been that way for about four years.
“I sleep on the street, not in the open street, but someplace where I have a tent," said Alonso.
Alonso said he camps high up in Elysian Park, about a 15-minute walk from the Home Depot. He shows up for work looking clean and presentable. He said he tries to use public showers when he can, but other times, washes in the L.A. River or in the nearby Arroyo Seco.
“I bathe when it rains and it is clean," he said in Spanish.
Alonso has struggled since the recession. Until about four years ago, he was able to rent a room nearby. But the work dried up, and the money wasn't enough. He stopped sending money home to his parents.
Others who came to the U.S. to find work have found themselves on similar footing, Valentan said.
"It's more about survival," Valentan said. "This gentrification that is happening in Los Angeles, it is leaving pretty much everybody without opportunities. Like rents are very expensive now. There is no way for a worker that is not working every day to pay a decent rent. There are no more decent rents."
Lately, Valentan and the job center staff have referred a growing number of workers to the Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights. The shelter is unique in that it caters to Spanish-speaking immigrants.
"Overall, we have seen a huge increase in the number of people coming to us, and newly homeless, since 2009," said Cynthia Sanchez, director of Proyecto Pastoral, the nonprofit that runs the shelter at Dolores Mission Church.
The church shelter first opened its doors nearly 30 years ago to house refugees fleeing war-torn Central America. Now, it shelters a different crowd.
“Most of them are day laborers. They work in construction or they work in restaurants, they work in landscaping," Sanchez said.
Twenty-six men sleep inside the church sanctuary and several others sleep in adjacent buildings. A smaller women's shelter opened a year and a half ago, housing mostly older women who work in domestic jobs.
Most of those who wind up on the street are single men, Sanchez said. They are here on their own, without families in the U.S., and often send money back home to relatives.
Sanchez and others who work with the homeless immigrants see them as a shadow population within Los Angeles' growing homeless ranks. Since last year, the number of homeless in Los Angeles County rose by almost 6 percent over the past year to 46,874 people, according to a census of the homeless released in May.
The immigrant homeless are part of this population, but there are barriers to assisting them. Many are reluctant to seek services or go to shelters, according to local day labor centers and others who work with them. They said they are afraid of others on the street who are mentally ill or use drugs. Some from foreign countries are fearful of the black homeless population.
There is also a sense of shame, Sanchez said. Some among the immigrant homeless are reluctant to accept help.
“You know, they don’t see themselves as being homeless or as needing shelter, but rather as needing support so they can work," Sanchez said.
Their lack of legal status in the U.S. also makes them reluctant to step forward, whether to report a crime or to enter a shelter.
"Even when they come here to the program, and we start putting their information into the computer, they ask: Where does this information go? Is it going to affect us?" said Salvador Mendoza, who handles intake at Dolores Mission.
County officials said those who lack legal status also have other issues accessing services.
"For the most part, undocumented immigrants are not eligible for public benefits, that being federal housing subsidies, or CalFresh benefits, formerly known as food stamps," said Phil Ansell, director of Los Angeles County's new Homeless Initiative.
Ansell said that's not to say U.S. citizens and legal residents who are homeless have it much easier. He said there isn't enough federal Section 8 housing assistance to go around.
"The overall challenge is that rents are high and that wages are low," Ansell said. "And that is the same challenge that faces most other homeless families and individuals."
Ansell said he hoped recent minimum wage and anti-wage theft laws might help. Wage theft -- when employers withhold wages or benefits owed to an employee -- is rampant in day labor and other low-wage industries that attract immigrants.
Sanchez at Dolores Mission said for now, their best solution for moving people into permanent housing is to place them with roommates in private rentals. But rising rents lately have made that difficult.
Getting Off the Streets
Every night at the Dolores Mission, after dinner, the cots go up inside the church, even where the altar stands.
“It gets pushed to the side to allow space for eight cots to go up on the altar,” Sanchez said.
Twenty-six men sleep in the church. Others sleep in adjacent buildings. Altogether the men's shelter houses 45. There is also a smaller women's shelter that opened a year and a half ago.
One recent evening, a few of the men gathered around the TV before dinner. Among them was 59-year-old Andres Gonzales Perez, a relatively recent arrival to the mission.
“I’ve been here for two months," Gonzales said. "It is the first time I am here at a mission, unfortunately."
Gonzales said it's the first time he has been homeless. He used to work as a baker, but became sick with a lung ailment that needed treatment and couldn’t keep working. He tried unsuccessfully staying with his brother. About three months ago, he wound up on the street.
"It was very cold," Gonzales said. "I got an ugly cough.”
Rigoberto Bejerano has been on the street longer. He said he tried staying for a time downtown, near Skid Row, where all the services are, but he found that frightening.
"There’s lots of drugs, lots of alcoholism, lots of perdition, lots of vandalism," said Bejerano, who has worked as a handyman. "People don’t have any money, so they attack others to get what they want. It’s dangerous living downtown."
Back in Cypress Park, Alonso said one reason he camps in the hills is to avoid the dangers of the streets. He said he's been thinking lately about heading back to Mexico after 16 years in the U.S.
He said he hasn't talked to his parents since he’s been on the street. At first, he told them everything was OK. Then he stopped calling.
"Instead of making them happy to hear from me, it would make them upset," he said.
It's been years now since he had contact.
"What really breaks my heart is that I don’t know if my dad is alive, if my mom is alive, if my siblings are OK," Alonso said. "I love them very much ... and I’m afraid they will think that I am ingrate, that I don’t want to help them, that I forgot about them -- and it’s not like that."
He said that if things don’t get better within a couple of years, he’ll head home.