Number of Homeless Latino Immigrants Grows

Benjamin Alvarado having lunch at the Spanish Evangelical Church in the Bronx, which feeds many without homes or stable jobs. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

Benjamín Alvarado having lunch at the Spanish Evangelical Church in the Bronx, which feeds many without homes or stable jobs. (Photo by Mariela Lombard via El Diario)

His tattered clothes scream for help through all of their open seams, but their cries don’t get the pity of passersby hurrying along. He doesn’t remember his name, but they call him Pepe Sopo in the Bronx. He introduces himself as a hopeless Mexican without a ceiling above his head. “I am tired of this bloody life,” he whispers, hiding a toothless smile with his calloused hand. “The only thing I have is the street.”

Pepe says that he is in his 40s, lacking the privilege of having a memory. He may have been born in 1972, but he doesn’t have any identity documentation that confirms his age. He looks older, with his skeletal body, consumed by hunger and addiction, and the deep wrinkles in his dark skin.

“It’s quite strange that you’re interested in when I was born because no one cares that I’m going to die,” he said. “We die without anyone praying to our sweet, little God for our souls.”

Rev. Danilo LaChapel, of the Bronx Evangelical Church, does not only implore divine favors for hundreds of helpless immigrants in the south of the borough of Salsa and its neighboring area, East Harlem. In recent years, an army of women volunteers has been collaborating with the religious leader to extend the food program to day laborers.

LaChapel said that since 2010, the number of homeless immigrants in search of a piece of bread and some hot soup has increased rapidly in his church. On Tuesdays, when cooked food is served in the community cafeteria, anywhere between 100 and 300 abandoned immigrants line up to receive their only meal for the day.

The reverend said that the majority are from Mexico and Central America – particularly Honduras – who immigrated to New York recently or have resided in the city for more than 20 years.

“It pains me to see youngsters fleeing from violence in their countries and coming here alone, without anyone to lend them a hand. Others are older men who aren’t able to get a job because of their age,” said Fiordaliza Emiliano, a woman who has been volunteering for three years.

The Dominican woman brings food to day laborer stops in the Bronx and patiently listens to these tragic stories, like Pepe Sopo’s, who immigrated from Cholula, Puebla, a decade ago, excited by the gifts from “gringo tourists” who visited his village.

“One day they arrived, giving out dollars and I wanted to taste these delicacies, but this bloody life only gave me bitterness,” said Pepe, who lost track of his siblings three years ago. “I left my wife and daughters to come sleep in parks in the Bronx.”

David Hernández, a 30-year-old native of Veracruz, entered the church with his shirt unbuttoned down to his chest, shamefully acknowledging his hangover. His dinner last night was a bottle of cheap liquor.

“I’m not homeless, I have many houses. Parks, bridges, ceilings, and abandoned buildings are my houses,” he said. “The only thing paining me is that my friend Ever died. Poor thing, he died alone.”

Hernández complained that African-American and Latino teenagers bother him for entertainment. “I defend myself with my fists and my teeth,” he said.

Rev. LaChapel commented that the homelessness situation is exacerbated by high incidences of alcoholism and drug addiction, adding to the unemployment that workers between the ages of 50 and 70 face. Many don’t speak English and without a legal immigration status, it is difficult to get access to services offered by the city.

“I’m old and I don’t move around as quickly anymore. The contractors take the younger guys instead,” Honduran native Benjamín Alvarado, 60, lamented. “I sleep wherever the night takes me. Paying rent for a room is a luxury that I haven’t given myself for years.”

The only dream left for Benjamín is returning to his coastal village in Honduras, from which he emigrated after losing everything in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch, in 1998.

Inés Contreras, a dedicated volunteer at the Bronx Evangelical Church for the past 18 years, commented that the most recent death of a homeless immigrant occurred three months ago in the area of the day laborers stop on Bruckner Boulevard and 149th Street.

“They die without identification papers or relatives who can claim their bodies. Abandonment is brutal,” she said. “Their relatives throw them out when their alcoholism worsens.”

Wanda Silva, the spokesperson for the office of the Bronx Borough President, Rubén Díaz Jr., said that there is contact between the immigrant and Mexican community in the borough and the City Council to facilitate access to public services.

East Harlem, another red zone

Alfonso Eugenio, a community organizer from Mexico and the coach of Rabbits Running Club, commented that the Third Avenue Bridge, Central Park benches, and the worn-down roof of St. Cecilia’s Church in the vicinity of 106th Street and Lexington Avenue are common shelters for homeless immigrants in East Harlem.

“Many live on recycled cans and supplies from the churches. There is an epidemic of homeless immigrants that must be addressed now,” he said.

City Council President Melissa Mark-Viverito commented that the council is committed to addressing the systemic crisis of homelessness in the city, including that of immigrants, and finding long-term solutions to alleviate the problem and break the cycle of homelessness.

“For many New Yorkers, and immigrants especially, the only thing standing in the way of them and a decent housing is job loss,” she indicated. “We have a moral and legal obligation to give our citizens refuge and we are working to meet that goal.”

A glimmer of hope

Oscar Armas, an Ecuadorean from the Way Out church ministries shelter, which works with the Bronx Evangelical Church, commented that three decades ago, most homeless people in the area were Puerto Ricans and African Americans, but now they are mainly from Mexico and Central America.

“I myself was a homeless immigrant with an addiction problem, but I never lost hope to make amends in my life. Today I am a counselor and I help others get on the right path.”

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