Doubly Difficult: To Be Homeless and an Immigrant in NYC

13 January, 2017

Millions of people have immigrated to America with the dream of a new and better life.

That dream becomes reality for some. But for others, it does not. Mental health problems, language difficulties, family issues, and the high cost of living can prevent immigrants from finding their place.

In New York City, thousands of immigrants are homeless. Philip Malebranche used to be one of them. He is Haitian-American.

Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization run by homeless people, held a memorial service at Judson Memorial Church to honor homeless men and women who passed away in 2016. (R. Taylor/VOA)
Picture the Homeless, a grassroots organization run by homeless people, held a memorial service at Judson Memorial Church to honor homeless men and women who passed away in 2016. (R. Taylor/VOA)

For 17 years, Malebranche was homeless. He moved between shelters and the streets. Today, he finally has a place to sleep each night. But finding that was not easy.

All across New York City, officials struggle to meet the demands of its shelter-seeking homeless population. More than 60,000 people in America's largest city are homeless. That number is 82 percent higher than it was 10 years ago.

Malebranche says homeless immigrants and minorities, especially, face great difficulties.

"If an immigrant happens to be homeless, he or she has the double problem of suffering from the stereotype involved in both groups," he said.

They may also be more vulnerable, says Jeff Foreman. He is with Care for the Homeless, a not-for-profit social services and health care organization in New York.

"We constantly hear of our clients who have worked hard, but not gotten paychecks," he told VOA. "When a person doesn't speak English as their first language, and is not familiar with all the cultural customs of society, it is much easier to take advantage of them."

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development says the number of homeless people in America has dropped by 14 percent since 2010. But Foreman said that the rates of homelessness differ greatly across the country.

He said any long-term solution to the problem must include housing.

"There's a real need for subsidized housing, for supportive housing, and for more public housing, if we are going to solve the homeless crisis in New York City," Foreman said.

A bit of luck

Daje Singh was born in the island nation of Trinidad. Her family is from India. She once almost became homeless while living in Queens, an area of New York City.

"I was living in my apartment in Queens. I lived there for seven years, and then the landlord sold the building. They said everybody had to go," she said.

That same week, Singh also lost her job. Suddenly, she had no place to stay.

"I didn't know what to do, because my family, none of them lives here," she said.

But, Singh had some good luck. She soon found a job as a nurse's assistant. She had a place to stay, too.

"I call it saved by the bell,'" Singh said, with tears in her eyes. "I got a job, and the person wanted me to stay with them. So I was staying with them in Manhattan and working, too."

In Singh's case, realizing her American dream remains possible. She will soon become a U.S. citizen. And one day, she hopes to visit India, her ancestral home.

She said her opinions of the homeless community around her will remain forever changed.

"Homelessness could happen to anybody at any time," Singh said. "Homeless people are nice people; they just have had bad luck sometimes."

I'm Caty Weaver.

Ramon Taylor wrote this report for VOA from New York City. Ashley Thompson adapted it for Learning English. Caty Weaver was the editor.


Words in This Story

stereotype – n. an often unfair and untrue belief that many people have about all people or things with a particular characteristic

vulnerable – adj. open to attack, harm, or damage

saved by the bell exp. saved by the timely intervention of someone or something

constantly adv. happening all the time or very often over a period of time

client n. a person who pays a professional person or organization for services

familiar adj. frequently seen, heard, or experienced

take advantage of exp. to use (something) unfairly for personal gain

subsidize v. to help someone or something pay for the costs of (something)

landlord n. a person who owns a house, apartment, etc., and rents it to other people