Rental assistance program helps undocumented pick up the pieces

Undocumented residents facing eviction may get rental assistance, thanks to a new program from Servicios de la Raza.

The week in March when the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization, Maria, an undocumented Colorado resident for over 15 years, lost the eight customers whose houses she cleaned for a living.

She found employment at a food packing plant, but that too closed when Colorado issued a stay-at-home order later that month. Her savings were enough to pay for April’s rent, but after that, she wasn’t sure how she’d be able to stay in the Colorado Springs townhouse she has called home for the past six years.

Undocumented immigrants, despite often paying taxes with ITIN numbers, have been blocked from state and federal assistance due to their legal status. They continue to struggle and rely on nonprofits for aid as the pandemic strips jobs from the economy. 

One such nonprofit, the Denver-based Servicios de La Raza, which focuses on serving both the Denver and Colorado Springs Latinx communities, started a pilot program to provide rental assistance to 400 to 500 undocumented families here, most of them in Southeast Colorado Springs. 

The pandemic’s economic and health impacts have disproportionately affected the entire Latinx community. But the undocumented are even less likely to access medical care due to fears of deportation, are barred from economic aid without Social Security numbers and more often work in job sectors most impacted by the pandemic. 

In a Pew Research Center study from May, 59 percent of Latinx people nationwide said they lived in households that experienced job losses or pay cuts due to COVID-19. That compared to 43 percent of other U.S. adults. The losses have hit Latinx women the hardest. The demographic experienced a 21 percent decline in work because of their prevalence in leisure and hospitality services. 

Most immigrants in Colorado are from Mexico. There were 190,000 undocumented immigrants in Colorado in 2016, according to the American Immigration Council. Undocumented immigrants paid almost $300 million in federal taxes and more than $150 million in state and local taxes in 2018, the most recent year for which data are available.

There is a large Hispanic community in El Paso County; 17.7 percent of residents are Hispanic according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2019 estimate. But those who are undocumented members of the Latinx community often feel invisible, said Servicios’ Director of Statewide Programs Julissa Soto.

Filling a void

Soto said she knows of at least 50 undocumented families that have been evicted since March, despite a federal and then state ban that prevented renters from being kicked out of their homes through early June.

“This is a community that is being hard hit in every single way from every single corner. Many programs out there can help with housing, with basic human needs, but when you go and apply for those programs, they do ask for documentation,” Soto said. 

She started a COVID-19 testing program in Southeast Colorado Springs this summer because people without documentation are often afraid to access medical services for fear of deportation. She also raised $310,000 in rental assistance for undocumented people in April by partnering with Impact Charitable, a Denver-based organization that uses investment to increase charitable spending. It was distributed among 310 families. 

The new Rental Assistance Program, which pulls from the Impact Charitable Left Behind Workers Fund, will pay two months of rent for up to 500 undocumented Colorado Springs families. For more information on the program, visit serviciosdelaraza.org.

Maria’s tale

Maria applied for and received Servicios’ first round of funding for $1,000 this June. The small grant prevented her from losing her home and allowed her to send money to her daughter in Mexico for medical expenses. Her daughter spent 40 days in the hospital fighting COVID-19 this spring. Maria said her daughter’s throat is still sore from being on a ventilator, and she still requires oxygen. Maria said her heart filled with joy even from the small amount of assistance Servicios could provide.

The 51-year-old wears a brace around her left elbow, which she fractured when she hit a marble table while vacuuming in May. She hasn’t stopped working to patch together small jobs to replace the work lost in March, and often stays up till 3 a.m. three nights a week making tamales and pozole to sell. 

“It was hard; my life has changed completely,” Maria said, speaking through an interpretor.

Her landlord has been flexible with the rent but is not forgiving it completely. Maria owes $1,800 in overdue rent and $600 in overdue utilities, but she has been able to pay $100 here and there to maintain her lease and keep the electricity flowing. 

Maria works more than before the pandemic and is earning $120 a week now, compared to $800 before losing work. She has cobbled together a few new houses to clean, some laundry work and customers to sell food to, making a bit of income this summer. She joked about putting flyers on every car in parking lots because she still needs more work. 

And yet, she is worried about a resurgence of the virus this fall and its economic impact. Maria, who volunteers as a community health worker, or a “promotora,” in Southeast Colorado Springs, said she is 70 percent sure she will be able to hold on to her townhouse. 

“The pandemic is affecting everyone in the community,” Maria said. 

As a promotora — someone who connects community members with resources such as Servicios and helps people find medical care — people come to her for help. She has seen many single mothers struggle to pay rent and lose jobs. 

“They are really scared right now,” she said.

The lack of federal or state aid has been hard for Maria, since undocumented people still pay taxes. 

“I feel like we got unnoticed. Even a little bit of help, $500 would help pay rent,” she said. 

“They’re the ones at the front line. There’s the ones who are getting sicker at a higher rate. And they are the ones who are losing their jobs,” Soto said. 

The fear of deportation forces many undocumented people to keep working, not reach out for assistance, not fight evictions and not seek medical help. 

“We prefer to get COVID than to get deported. If you have to pick and choose, which one would you choose?” Soto asked. 

The pandemic has landed Maria in the kind of situation she thought she left behind in Mexico. 

“I came to the United States to better my life and improve,” she said. “I didn’t think that I’d be in this position where I had to worry about where my next meal is going to come from [or] how should I pay my bills and my rent.” 

This story first appeared in the Aug. 12 Colorado Springs Independent.