hispanic homeless

OP-ED: Homeless Hispanic Families Fight “If They’re Brown, Turn ‘em Down.”

By Charley James

Being Hispanic in the parts of America where it’s illegal to look Mexican is tough.

From Arizona through the Confederacy, laws written by ALEC – the far right, xenophobia and all-but-racist American Legislative Exchange Council – and passed by many legislatures make daily living extraordinarily difficult for Latino citizens. Compounding the problem is the US Border Patrol whose agents assume everyone who looks vaguely Spanish is an illegal trying to sneak into the country, never mind if they happen to be citizens.

Things are so bad that a former governor gets snared repeatedly by America’s irrational paranoia.

As ThinkProgress reported, 96-year old Raul Hector Castro has been detained three times, most recently in June. Besides being a US citizen, Mr. Castro is the only Hispanic ever elected governor of Arizona and was Ambassador to three Latin American nations. Still, this summer border patrol agents acting more like Matones callejeros – barrio street thugs – forced him to sit in a sweltering tent as they checked him out while a friend begged agents not to subject the elderly man to such harsh, totally unnecessary treatment.

If a widely-revered and admired public official faces this kind of harassment, imagine the problems confronting obscure citizens of Hispanic descent who become homeless and seek help after living a middle class life contributing to their community, the tax base and their nation.

Racist Policies
Armando and his wife Julia don’t have to imagine, they know precisely what it’s like.

Until the recession, they owned two small clothing stores in Arizona. They lost their business in early 2009 and their home was seized in early 2010 when they fell hopelessly behind on payments. Armando was born in Mexico but moved to Arizona with his parents when he was five and has been a citizen since age 10. Julia was born in Texas to parents of Spanish heritage whose ancestors had lived there when the land belonged to Mexico.

“My bisabuela used to say we didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” Julia says, laughing at her great-grandmother’s joke. Versions of the same line are uttered by many Spanish descendents across the Southwest whose families have lived for generations in what’s now the United States. “But when we applied for help, they treated us like we snuck across that morning just to get welfare.”

Armando is angry and bitter.

“I never know any country other than United States,” he sputters indignantly. “I am citizen, I work here, I hire people here, pay taxes, go to Mass, do projects in our neighborhood. No one say ‘You’re Hispanic, don’t pay tax, don’t help on block.’ How come now I am treated like illegal because I need help?”

The answer may lie in the state’s unofficial policy.

“There’s nothing in writing but supervisors tell us to be tough on anyone Hispanic,” a public employee confides. Her job is to screen first-time applicants for assistance and frets that if even her first name is used she will be disciplined or fired despite being a career civil servant. “Well, that’s more than half the people coming in for help.

“In Arizona, nearly everyone has a passport because people cross the border so often,” the woman explains. “Most Mexican-Americans use their US passport as ID when they apply for help, but the unofficial policy is to make it difficult for them to qualify.”

She says she ignores her supervisor’s directives as much as she can, and claims many people in the department do the same.

Two others working in the same area of government confirm the woman’s basic charge. One man sums up what he maintains is the unofficial word sent down repeatedly through the department from Gov. Jan Brewer’s administration: “If they’re brown, turn ‘em down.”

Gov. Brewer’s office did not return a call seeking a response to the allegations.

Head Counts
As is the case elsewhere, accurate statistics quantifying the number of Hispanic homeless are hard to come by.

Green Doors advocates for housing on behalf of homeless and poor Latinos in Texas, and estimates that 15% of homeless families and individuals there are Hispanic. One federal estimate puts the number at 10% nationally.

Since the Census Bureau calculates that 16.7% of Americans have Latin or Hispanic roots, and for the country as a whole 36% are minorities generally, it appears the problem affects proportionately fewer Hispanics. Yet they seem to have more difficulty getting help than do Anglos.

But the numbers might be low because most nose counts are done at shelters, and not all homeless people use such facilities.

Like Armando and Julia, Hector and his wife plus their four children have lived with relatives ever since being forced out of their Phoenix home when the Bank of America foreclosed, thanks to a Countrywide subprime mortgage they’d been talked into getting exploded. So they don’t show up in totals. As Hector says, “We don’t have a home, we have my brother.”

Hector and his family are US citizens – his wife and their children were born here – yet he has trouble obtaining services.

“We fight to get food help,” he states with justifiable anger. “We fight to get on lists for housing. We are Americans! Why does America treat us like this?”

Harassment shows up in countless ways. Whether walking or driving, he says he’s stopped about once a week for no reason, compelled by police to prove his citizenship. Hector remembers bitterly that, “Some officers, they seem mad they can’t arrest me.”

He remembers a cop in a small desert town who was so miffed at having stopped a US citizen he threw Hector’s passport and driver’s license at him through the open car window before stomping back to his squad car without so much as a “get lost, wetback.”

It’s no better when Hector goes to a state office. “I go to welfare and they tell me ‘this form is wrong and you don’t have that form.’ I tell them I bring the forms last time, sometimes I even have my copy, but …” he pauses, trying to think of an English phrase before continuing in Spanish “… En esa reunión me sentí como si estuviese pintado en la pared. ¿Y yo qué, acaso estoy pintado en la pared?

Roughly translated from what I recall of middle school Spanish with help from an on-line translator, probably as bad a resource as my dusty memory, it seems Hector is saying “I feel like I am painted on the wall. Why am I being ignored?”

Not Just Arizona
Although laws following Arizona’s “paper’s please” model have shown up only in the South so far, the attitude is much more widely spread, reaching into other states controlled by far-right wing governors and legislatures.

Indiana is a prime example. Its Hispanic population is relatively small – 6.2% according to the Census Bureau and only 4% of all residents are foreign-born – citizens from Latino backgrounds report having special difficulty with a bureaucracy that seems intent on blocking assistance.

“When I was homeless in 2010 I had many problems filing papers for assistance,” states Alarico, who became a citizen in 1995. “They look at my face, my moustache, they think I am illegal, a migrant who comes to pick vegetables and wants to cheat.”

Alarico has needed help in the past, typically when he would get laid off from one of the many blue collar jobs he has held over the years. But he says it wasn’t until Mitch Daniels was elected governor that he started having trouble.

“Daniels, he is not good for people like me,” the man states. “He takes my taxes but when I need some back because I am out of work or don’t have money for food, he don’t help.”

One activist familiar with the situation in Indiana claims Hispanics there have had a much tougher time getting aid they’re entitled to receive since Daniels took office. Of course, it’s possible that voters in dark red states like Indiana have happy tea parties whenever the governor deprives minorities of help.

Block Grants
In a wide swath from the Southwest through Dixie and into the North, I heard repeated stories of minorities – mostly Hispanic but also African-Americans and some Asians – denied needed help by unofficial government policies that amount to de facto discrimination.

This is what makes Republican Party calls for converting federal aid and rules for Medicaid, food stamps and other assistance programs into “block grants” so dangerous.

Few people believe that a Jan Brewer would ensure that federal block grant money would be dispensed fairly and equitably; indeed, many doubt it would reach the needy at all. There’s already an example in Wisconsin where Republican Gov. Scott Walker took $26-million from his state’s $140-million share of the mortgage fraud settlement intended for victims of bankster fraud, using it instead to balance the state’s budget.

Since Arizona is a prime example of an already-bad situation, and it’s no secret than Gov. Brewer barely hides her disdain for Mexican-Americans and other non-whites, there is a fair question to ask: How likely is it that she would take a block grant intended to pay for food, housing and medical care for the needy, disabled people, seniors and homeless families, and use it for that purpose?

A South Carolina advocate for homeless families states unequivocally that she would not trust Gov. Nikki Haley – or any elected Republican in the state, for that matter – to use federal money to help the poor if she didn’t have to.

“Haley would use the money to cut taxes for her rich supporters living in fake Antebellum mansions before she gave ten cents to a homeless mother with small kids,” the activist insists. “How could anyone trust her to do what’s right?”

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Charley James
Charley James, a pseudonym, is a long-time independent journalist based in Toronto who covers social justice, politics and economic issues. He's worked in print and broadcast media for national magazines, large newspapers and major market radio and television outlets.

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