Cindy Rodriguez is the Urban Policy reporter for New York Public Radio.
When Sandy hit, it exposed an underclass living marginal lives in basements and other rundown homes, many inhabited by people who entered the country illegally. And because many don’t qualify for federal aid, they’re at a greater disadvantage.
Ana Vega had been renting a room inside a small house in Midland Beach Staten Island when Sandy hit. The place was crowded. Six other immigrants lived there too. Her rent was cheap - $275 a month. Since arriving in the U.S. Vega had worked in laundromats, dry cleaners and was most recently cleaning house for a family. The low rent had allowed her to send a daughter to college in Mexico. She had a few modest possessions but the storm washed everything away. Water filled the house and blew out nearly all the windows.
"The furniture was thrown about and it looked like the home had been turned upside down then put back again," Vega said in Spanish.
The 51 year old, who’s using a false name because she lacks legal status and fears repercussions, quickly applied for federal aid. Desperate for help, she went six different times to meet with workers from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. But each time she was turned away.
Vega said the workers would always treat her nicely but in the end say,"'We'd like to do more but we can't.'"
According to FEMA, roughly 90,000 households in New York state have received more than $358 million in rental assistance since Sandy hit. But immigrants without valid social security numbers don’t qualify for the help unless they have a child born here. Vega’s kids are in Mexico. Without a place to go, she eventually ended up at Bayley Seton in Staten Island – an old hospital that sat mostly empty until the city started using it as a disaster shelter after the storm.
"I'm still here because I have no other recourse and no help," Vega said.
About 1,000 households are still staying in hotels and shelters like this one. Many of them are poor and unemployed. The city and FEMA are trying to place them in public housing or give them federal rental vouchers. Vega doesn’t qualify for either.
After natural disasters, finding housing for victims is often government’s biggest challenge – and when people are here illegally, it gets that much harder.
"People around the country have said to us, 'we’ve never figured this out. It would be great if you guys in New York could'," Fatima Shama, Commissioner of the city's Office of Immigrant Affairs said.
Shama said the city has been canvassing immigrants affected by Sandy and more than 4,000 households have been reached so far. Shama acknowledged that a lack of supply has caused rents to increase leading some immigrants to stay in moldy apartments never properly fixed by their landlords because it’s all they can afford.
"These tenants are really afraid," Shama said. "They’re really afraid that raising the profile of their needs will jeopardize their ability to stay in this affordable place."
Make the Road New York has also been working with immigrants in storm affected areas. Melissa McCrumb, the group’s Sandy coordinator, said that on top of not qualifying for federal aid, immigrants also have trouble receiving help from private organizations because they often live in illegal housing.
"And so there’s usually no lease," McCrumb said. "And a lot of folks pay in cash so there’s no documentation that they lived in an affected area and if you can’t prove that you lived in an affected area, a lot of times you can’t get any assistance."
Photo: Blanca stands in front of the spot where her apartment once stood. She lost everything in a storm-related fire and doesn't qualify for federal aid. Cindy Rodriguez/WNYC)
Blanca and her family did have a lease. After being in this country more than a decade, the 38 year old said she had slowly progressed and had been living in a comfortable 3 bedroom apartment in Far Rockaway, Queens - until her entire block burned down the night Sandy hit. Mounds of rubble and twisted steel are what’s left of the area. Wrapped up in a winter coat and hat, she pointed to where she used to live.
"This down here used to be a furniture store," she said. "And here was Papa John's, the pizzeria. Above the Papa John's was my apartment."
Now she, her husband and son are sharing a dilapidated house with 11 other people - each family is crammed into a small bedroom. Her son sleeps on a couch. Blanca, who only wanted to use her first name out of a fear of being deported, said the family has to start new.
"But I can't figure out how," she said. "I'm here in this country nearly 13 years and everything I did and fought for was lost in an instant."
Blanca is pregnant and had been cleaning house for a family nearby but their home was ruined too so they moved away leaving her unemployed. Her husband had been working for a company in Howard Beach that got flooded out. Now he’s washing dishes for way below minimum wage. They’ve received donations of clothes and food but nothing more because no one has legal status. Blanca said the family did have some money put away – about $3,000 but it burned in the fire.
"You get a little scared to open a bank account," she explained.
Fatima Shama says it’s possible that immigrants lacking legal status could qualify for certain funds coming in from the Department of Housing and Urban Development but said it’s more likely private money will be used to alleviate their housing issues. She wasn’t ready to say exactly how.
Ana Vega has until the end of the month to find a place to stay – that’s when the city plans to close down shelters and stop paying for hotels.
"Don't ignore us," she said. We're people... just like all Americans. We need a place to sleep too."