Recognizing Housing Instability in Undocumented Populations 

By: Beludji Narcisse, Research Associate

A lot of people are at risk of falling into homelessness without being aware of it. Socio-economic statistics repeatedly show that most Americans struggle financially. A recent CNBC survey showed that 65 % of U.S. adults affirmed they were living paycheck to paycheck. (Malinsky, 2024) Most Americans are not on secure financial grounds to guarantee housing after an unnerving life circumstance such as job loss or high medical bills. Yet, seldom do we consider our potential risk of losing housing. It is important to recognize the signs. Doing so can prepare us to navigate eventual struggles with housing. When even the American working-class battles through the affordable housing crisis, undocumented immigrants surely have it worse.  My battle with housing insecurity started when I first came to the United States in 2016 at fifteen years old, fleeing political violence in Haiti. The country was already spiraling into chaos. Judging Haiti’s current situation, my parents made the right call to make me stay in the United States. In the Fall of 2016, I settled with my aunt while attending high school in Massachusetts. I had no prospect of finding employment, getting a driver’s license, or engaging in the college admissions process because of my undocumented status. Though I did not make this assessment back then, the risks of becoming homeless were extremely high. I was already fighting to get a stable roof over my head.  

Although I have appreciated my aunt taking me in, my personal experience has made me realize that living with a relative should not be considered stable housing for undocumented immigrants, especially living in a household that is already housing cost-burdened with limited resources, which many immigrants’ households face. In writing this piece, I aim to show the plight of immigrant teens’ housing conditions and acknowledge the sacrifice my relatives made taking me in. I hope to shine a light on the issue of unemployment for a vast section of American society, comprised of over 10.5 million undocumented people, who are unable to fully integrated into the economy and benefit from it. (Beshay et.al, 2024) The problem of employment for undocumented immigrants is tightly linked to their ability to find and maintain housing. Confronted with legal barriers to finding jobs, undocumented immigrants often find themselves living with extended relatives who, sometimes, cannot bear the cost of support.  

After I stayed in Massachusetts, it was often apparent that I had to find work not only to take care of myself but also to contribute to household expenses. In Haiti, my parents did what they could to support me, providing shelter and schooling, things that generally are at the base of a parent-child relationship. The parental reliance I enjoyed since I was an infant was quickly uphanded after I moved to the U.S.  While living with my aunt, there was often a force pulling us apart, stemming from the dilemma of unemployment. No one wants to be entirely dependent on others. Similarly, no one can deal with a full-bodied capable person living under their roof without contribution, certainly not in America. The cost of supporting someone can add up, from bills to food. My aunt was a healthcare worker who toiled in hospitals in Boston day and night, working double shifts to support herself and her two daughters who were university students at the time. It did not come easy for her to receive me in her home. As an undocumented youth who came to the U.S. at the working age of 15, I have deeply felt the dilemma of unemployment throughout my high school years. I sensed the need to acquire money through a part-time job to spend on myself like any teenager. I also sensed the need to help maintain the household financially to prevent being a burden to my extended family. Was I struggling with housing issues? My extended family took care of me. I had a roof over my head and was not mistreated.  

However, any social worker, community activist, or youth advocate who has experience in working with homeless youth would have recognized that I was at risk of becoming homeless. These risks were financial stress, changing family circumstances, and unforeseeable continuity of housing. I was financially stressed because I could not work legally, and my parents could not support me in the United States. My familial circumstances changed because I could no more, in good faith, expect to be financially dependent on them. After all, they earned a meager wage in Haiti, barely able to send me money. I could not expect to stay with my aunt without worrying about moving to find opportunities somewhere else. The story of my undocumented friend shines a light on the unstable nature of being undocumented. We lived in the same neighborhood in Haiti, moved to the U.S. during the same year, and stayed in the same state. We shared one other characteristic: We never had a fixed mailing address in America. 

For undocumented people, there is no expectation to find a life staying in one place. Undocumented youths often end up moving to an entirely new state altogether, as there are states in this country where they are barred from even stepping foot on public colleges, such as Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina. In Massachusetts, though undocumented students were welcomed on public campuses, financial assistance was bleak. The state barred undocumented students from access to in-state tuition and financial aid and only recently reversed the policy in 2023. (Povich, 2023). College was not on my radar. The prospect of staying with my aunt while unemployed and unenrolled was not feasible after my high school graduation in 2019. I did not want to financially burden her for too long. There are no other words to describe my then situation at the time: I was an undocumented youth lacking stable housing.  

Struggles with housing are sometimes recognizable in high school students who are undocumented. In high school, I avoided anything that asked for information about my household composition and income. Local youth summer job applications and other programs often demanded income and other household information that I likely would not have known or wanted to put out because of my status. School officials identify homelessness risks among undocumented students as a result of their absence in crucial programs able to help them combat poverty in their homes. Not having access to school-sponsored summer employment makes it harder for undocumented youth to build savings that can help reduce the stress of financial dependence on relatives. As a former undocumented high school student, I was often asked questions about my household by teachers and counselors who, assuredly, were trying to get a sense of my living situation.  

After my high school graduation, I moved to Connecticut in search of employment opportunities that a cousin told me about. After making some calls to some inside connections in Hotels in Stamford, I was able to work briefly as a housekeeper. It was an on-call gig with no fixed schedules. Making substantial savings was not possible. I had to move to New York at my uncle’s to work at a local diner as a busser for about two months. Then, I moved back to another cousin’s house in Connecticut in March 2020, hoping to find a better-paying job at the casinos. But unfortunately, the casinos shut down as a result of the pandemic. Unemployed, my cousin, a single mother at the time, could not support me. As a result, I fell into homelessness during the winter of 2021. My journey consists of an overlooked characteristic about undocumented youths: They often move around between states constantly because of unemployment and lack of access to educational opportunities.  

Many layers to someone’s situation can lead to homelessness. For undocumented immigrants, the causes of homelessness and housing struggles are obvious: unemployment due to lack of legal status, financial stress, and changing familial situations play a huge role in the struggle for stable shelter. As immigrants, we are expected by society to walk a fine line between integrating into the American workforce and striving for ourselves. This fine line is portrayed as a matter of human dignity in our economic system, yet those who were not fortunate enough to enter legally cannot walk it. Better policies are needed to ensure that immigrant communities thrive and can fully participate in the American economy.  

References 

Beshay, Passel, S., & Krogstad, J. M. (2024, April 14). What we know about unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2023/11/16/what-we-know-about-unauthorized-immigrants-living-in-the-us/#:~:text=As%20of%202021%2C%20the%20nation’s,1.75%20million%2C%20or%2014%25

Malinsky, G. (2024, April 15). More Americans say they are living paycheck to paycheck this year than in 2023—here’s why. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2024/04/09/most-of-americans-are-living-paycheck-to-paycheck-heres-why.html 

Tns, & Povich, S. (2023, August 24). 24 states allow In-State tuition for immigrant students. Governing. https://www.governing.com/education/24-states-allow-in-state-tuition-for-immigrant-students 

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