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Homeless and undocumented: Different sides of the same coin

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Protesters in Portland, Oregon show support for the immigration community during a September 2017 rally. (Courtesy photo)

In his Pulitzer prize winning book “Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City,” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee who desperately attempt to claw a path between the welfare system, landlords, the judicial system, churches, charities and shelters. “The trauma of being forced from your home, the blemish of an eviction record, and the taxing rush to locate a new place to live pushed evicted renters into more depressing and dangerous areas of the city,” wrote Desmond painting a landscape of desperation and entrapment.

It struck me, though, that this could well have been a book on undocumented immigration from Central America as of homelessness inside America. The language of eviction is the language of asylum: “involuntary displacement,” “a forced move,” “discrimination,” “illegal occupation.”

The choices and motivations of migrants who are forced out of their countries appear to clearly intersect with Americans who are forced out of their homes. For many, poverty is the root cause in both situations.

Both homelessness and undocumented immigration are stigmatizing issues. Public opinion is equally harsh when it comes to both groups of people. The Washington Post reported that while “many Americans support increased government aid to homeless people, they also support laws that effectively make homelessness a crime.” Definitely in the case of undocumented immigrants, the court of public opinion and the laws of the state and country define undocumented individuals as “illegal,” as lawbreakers, subject to apprehension and deportation.

Earlier in November, when Catholic Charities of San Francisco hosted a media briefing to celebrate the opening of Mission Access Point, a resource for homeless prevention as well as immigration services in collaboration with the City of San Francisco, I was curious to hear what would be said, especially in light of my fascination with Desmond’s book.

“Our homeless families are struggling on our streets, but also our immigrant communities,” Mayor London Breed, the key speaker at the event, said connecting the common suffering faced by both groups.

Breed described the steep demand for homelessness prevention programs such as the Mission Access Point, “We have 50 people a week and right behind those 50 people there are another 65 people ready to take their place.” A good quarter of the homeless population in the United States is in California, and regional solutions were needed, she stated.

Indeed, even at this moment, there are hundreds of migrants headed to America, but behind them there are another hundred and another. In the meantime, a wall, tear gas, and US Border Patrol Agents are what stand between asylum seekers and the promise of a decent life. Further, it is evident that migration is a problem that needs regional solutions. It cannot be solved by America alone.

Francisco Gonzalez, the program director for immigration services at Catholic Charities in San Francisco said that the center focuses on helping people navigate the immigration system and “transit from undocumented to documented.”

Supervisor Hillary Ronen echoed Mayor Breed’s remarks, applauding Catholic Charities’ efforts at providing “a safe place to come where the services will be linguistically and culturally sensitive, where they understand the intersection between several challenges, whether it’s someone who is homeless and might be undocumented and might not be an English language speaker.”

Catholic Charities’ Mission Access Point serves homeless families and immigrant families and, in its work serving both populations, the non-profit links these two giant issues that’s unsettling our society.

Jilma Meneses, CEO of Catholic Charities in San Francisco, brought up the issue of homelessness being under-reported. “There are families living in their homes, up to 20 people in a small space and they are often not counted,” she said. This is often the case for immigrant families where entire families double down in spaces designed for one or two.

Desmond, in his book, describes the scene of a kitchen on Eighteenth and Wright where Mikey is doing his math homework, Ruby is practicing Stanky Legg in front of the television, Jada is banging on things, Natasha, hugely pregnant, is combing Kayla Mae’s hair, and Doreen and Patrice sit at the table across from Mikey discussing the eviction notice Doreen had received. The scene aptly depicted Meneses’ version of homelessness, even with a roof over their heads.

“Evicted” lays bare a riveting yet deeply disturbing chronicle of families who live within a maelstrom of displacement. Desmond masterfully chooses particular moments to portray the incredible spirit, ingenuity and resilience of people enduring hardship.

Gonzalez’s history as an asylum seeker from Cuba reflects that indomitable human spirit. When he found himself in deportation proceedings, Gonzalez, an attorney in his home country, decided to take on his own representation. “For me, I was acquainted with the language, I was acquainted with how to work the legality of the system, and it was still extremely, extremely difficult,” he said. Twenty years later, he uses that experience as an impetus to help low-income immigrants obtain immigrant status.

Jaya Padmanabhan’s column runs biweekly in the SF Examiner. She can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan

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