NEW YORK – Sotero Cirilo sleeps in a small blue tent under a train track bridge in Elmhurst, Queens.
The 55-year-old immigrant from Mexico used to make $800 per week at two Manhattan restaurants, which closed when the COVID-19 pandemic started. A few months later, he couldn’t afford the rent of his Bronx room, and afterward, of another room in Queens he moved into.
“I never thought I would end up like this, like I am today,” he said in Spanish, his eyes filling up with tears.
Cirilo, who mainly speaks an indigenous language called Tlapanec, is part of an increasing number of unauthorized immigrants who are falling through the cracks due to the coronavirus pandemic, some advocates and nonprofits say. They worked in hard-hit industries — such as restaurants, hospitality or construction — and lack of income has impacted their ability to afford food and rent, pushing some out of their homes.
Unemployment among Hispanic immigrants has doubled in the U.S., going from 4.8% in January 2020 to 8.8% in February 2021, according to the Migration Policy Institute. These numbers don’t take into consideration immigration status but activists and social workers in states like New York or California say more vulnerable immigrants, whom often don't qualify for aid, are finding themselves without a home.
“I have seen an increase of encampments of immigrants experiencing homelessness in Queens. Each has five or six tents,” said Yessenia Benitez, a 30-year-old licensed clinical social worker who helps these groups.
“Right now, they are adapting by collecting bottles but they are working folks. They want to contribute to society. And before the pandemic, they were contributing to society, some of them were paying taxes,” said Benitez.
In Los Angeles, The Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights has seen a “significant increase” of calls to a hotline of assistance for immigrants over the last six months, said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, the spokesman for the organization.