They have no documentation, no stable home, and no support. Often unnoticed, their struggle is hidden within the walls of overcrowded apartments and in the shadows of government agencies. These immigrants are what Janethe Peña, executive director of D.C. Doors, calls the city’s “invisible” homeless.
Peña knows the story all too well. As a third-generation immigrant from Nicaragua, she came to the U.S. with her mother when she was 18 months old. Fleeing the civil war in their home country, they came to D.C. and moved into a three-bedroom home with 14 of their family members.
“Undocumented homelessness is a major issue in D.C.,” Peña said. “You just can’t find it. Because there is no data.”
Unlike other groups comprising the homeless community, no precise national figures exist on the number of undocumented homeless people. According to Peña, a major reason for this lack of data is that an undocumented individual experiencing homelessness is very rarely going to identify as undocumented or homeless for fear of deportation.
“The biggest fear is falling into the system. Because falling into the system means they come out of the shadows. And a lot of individuals prefer to go from place to place — to overcrowded and unsafe situations — than to be brought out of the shadows, especially with the new [Trump] administration,” Peña said.
According to her, because of the current rhetoric towards immigrants, this hesitancy to give out personal information holds true regardless of legal status. Both documented and undocumented immigrants are reluctant and fearful. “You will not see someone go to an office and publicly say they need assistance with their housing. Maybe before, but certainly not now,” Peña said.
This has proven to be a struggle for D.C. Doors and organizations like it, who can no longer afford to aid only the Latino homeless community. In order for D.C. Doors to increase their funding and visibility, they must and have begun to work with communities outside of the undocumented and Latino sectors.
“The reality is that in order for us to be viewed as a force in the homeless community, we need to start serving more mainstream. And that’s sad, but it’s the truth,” she said.
It is Peña’s own experience with urban poverty and migrating to a new country that led her to commit her life to education about and advocacy for homeless immigrants. It’s what led her to found D.C. Doors.
Originally called the Latino Transitional Housing Partnership (LTHP), D.C. Doors was created as a program to fill the gap in transitional and permanent housing needs for Latinos living in the District. Today, the nonprofit provides comprehensive assistance to immigrant Latino families and single Latina women facing housing crises. The organization strives to help homeless families and low-income families break the cycles of poverty and homelessness.
The individuals they help usually fall under the umbrella of the “invisible” homeless.
Eva Maria Chavez, a former policy intern at D.C. Doors now working at the Downtown Women’s Center in Los Angeles, described this community as the people “you ride the metro with, you buy food from, but you have no idea that they don’t have a place to call home because they are invisible to you.”
Juana Perdomo, who migrated to the United States from El Salvador, lost her apartment in 2015 after her building complex changed owners and the cost of living increased. After working in the U.S. for seven years, seven days a week, she found herself without a place to sleep.
“I had nowhere to live. I had to go from place to place, rent rooms here and there,” Perdomo said. “So, my social worker connected me to Janethe [of D.C. Doors] and I qualified for their program and began to live there…but I still don’t have a place of my own, I still don’t know where I will go from here.”
Perdomo, who came to the U.S. to be able to financially support her daughter in El Salvador, is one of many that D.C. Doors has helped. However, according to Chavez, the funds and resources needed to fully help undocumented homeless people in D.C. are simply not there.
This is largely because undocumented immigrants are explicitly prohibited from federal programs due to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a major federal overhaul that restricted immigrant access to welfare programs, among other federal public benefits.
Even the biggest funder of homeless individuals and families, the Department of Housing and Urban Development(HUD), is not permitted to support aid to undocumented individuals.
This restriction puts nongovernmental organizations like D.C. Doors in a tough position because of the myriad of barriers created by federal regulation.
Escalating the current climate surrounding this community, the Trump administration has threatened to take away federal funding from “sanctuary cities,” a blanket term which refers to various policies that prevent local law enforcement from cooperating with federal immigration enforcement, such as asking about immigration status during routine stops or cooperating with detainment orders.
The District has implemented sanctuary policies since 1984, and Mayor Muriel Bowser reaffirmed this status in November 2016 before going as far as to set up a legal services fund for immigrant justice in January.
“It’s a waiting game,” Peña said. “We haven’t had a raid yet, but they are happening right outside our borders. If you start seeing them in D.C., then that is something to worry about because that means that we are not really a sanctuary city.”
D.C. has approximately 70,000 immigrants, of which roughly 25,000 are undocumented.
And they face yet another obstacle when you look at the technical definition of homelessness under HUD. The HUD definition of homelessness, that is also used at the local level, is limited to chronic homelessness. Overcrowding is not one of the reasons why an individual or family can be considered to be experiencing homelessness. So, even if an individual is living in a one-bedroom apartment in the Columbia Heights area with 10 other individuals, they are not considered homeless and eligible for assistance under the HUD definition.
“This population needs to have their specific needs addressed. Just like youth and veterans have their specific homeless resources, undocumented homeless should have their own,” Chavez said. “The experience is different. This population usually finds the most hidden places. They are scared. I think this needs to come to light and more people need to start demanding these resources. We need to protect these individuals that are too often treated like animals. These are just people who are fleeing countries in warfare and in extreme poverty.”