When Family Ties Fray, Migrant Kids Can Land on Streets

Advocates worry unaccompanied minors from Central America are vulnerable to homelessness and gang recruitment.

Fellows 2015

By Katya Cengel

November 24, 2015

Also published by Al Jazeera America

The community where Cristian Gomez grew up in rural Guatemala didn’t have traffic lights. So it wasn’t until he was 13, when he moved to Los Angeles in 2008 to live with his aunt, that he learned how to cross a busy city street.

Back then, Gomez stood 4 feet 8 inches tall and weighed just 80 pounds. He didn’t speak English and had little education. Seven years later, he is still slight — barely 5 feet tall and a little over 100 pounds. Otherwise, he looks like the typical American college student he is, his English only slightly accented. But his immigrant ascent in this country was not without setbacks, including a two-year stretch when he was homeless.

A homeless encampment in the concrete-lined channel of Arroyo Seco Creek in Los Angeles, Nov. 20, 2015. Photo: David McNew / Getty Images

An unprecedented 50,000 unaccompanied minors from Central America were apprehended along the U.S.-Mexico border in 2014. The majority were released to legal guardians (usually family members) — including 4,311 in Los Angeles County for fiscal years 2014 and 2015 — while awaiting the results of their deportation proceedings. But life with sponsors is not always straightforward, and some immigrant youths end up on their own and on the streets.

Guillermo Torres of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice, Los Angeles, said he has heard of a dozen or so young migrants who arrived in the U.S. last year who have already left their sponsors’ homes. He is part of a coalition that connects Central American migrants with service providers.

Neither the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles nor the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority have data on foreign-born homeless unaccompanied minors or homeless immigrants.

“There’s very little data on unaccompanied minors and youth. They’re a tiny percentage of the homeless population,” said Eileen Bryson of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.

In the 2015 Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count, there were 280 unaccompanied minors (children living on their own, not children who entered the country on their own) among a total homeless population of 41,174.

But advocates are concerned that, without proper support, more immigrants who arrived as unaccompanied minors from Central American may find themselves homeless in the U.S.

“We have youth that have many issues in regards with many of these kids turning homeless if something is not done,” said Alexander Sanchez, a co-founder of the Los Angeles violence prevention program Homies Unidos.

The Rev. Richard Estrada, the founder of Jovenes Inc., agreed that homelessness could well be a danger for this cohort, especially those in the age group that Jovenes serves, 18-to-25-year-olds. According to its 2012–13 survey, almost a quarter of the homeless youths for whom Jovenes provided housing were foreign born.

“They are vulnerable to [becoming] homeless because there is no safety net for them,” said Estrada.

Casa Libre (Freedom House), where Cristian Gomez stayed from 2012 to 2014, specializes in serving Central American teens, many of whom have entered and are living in the U.S. illegally. This summer it housed seven teenagers — six of them Guatemalan. The majority of the Guatemalan boys come from isolated indigenous communities that have long been neglected and in some cases persecuted by the Guatemalan government. One resident is an orphan who went to the U.S. three years ago at the age of 15. A year later, the elder brother he was living with disappeared.

“He’s lived in storage rooms, on the street, just general homelessness,” said Casa Libre program administrator Federico Bustamante.

The boy’s story is not unique.

Stephanie Canizales, a sociology Ph.D. student at the University of Southern California who has studied indigenous unaccompanied youths from Guatemala in Los Angeles, has found that most experience short-term bouts of homelessness or otherwise become disengaged from their support systems.

The reasons for this disengagement are varied. Some children are released to older siblings just barely out of childhood themselves. Family members unaware that a child was heading their way may view the new arrival as a burden. Sponsors may refuse to enroll children in school, insisting they live somewhere else if they want to study instead of work.

“So then they come here, we enroll them in school, and they do live somewhere else,” said Bustamante.

Troy Elder, the bishop’s legate for the Global Partnership at the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, is involved with a number of programs aimed at helping these families. He cautions against judging the kids’ sponsors too harshly.

“They’re often on kind of tenuous ground themselves,” he said, “one step from deportation themselves. There is not often a lot of money in the household.”

Bustamante has seen cases in which, either out of fear or misinformation, parents have refused to sign forms needed to legalize their child’s status, thereby driving the child from their home. Then there are those children who — out of anger, hurt or a number of other confusing emotions — rebel against parents they haven’t seen in years. Sanchez said that is what he and his peers experienced when they arrived in the U.S. from El Salvador as children in the 1970s and ’80s.

“We weren’t saying, ‘Mom, Dad, I missed you so much,’” he said. “We were saying, ‘Why the fuck did you abandon us?’”

Gomez never knew his father, and his mother died when he was too young to remember. He was raised by his grandmother and maternal aunts in Guatemala. When he was 9 or 10, his aunts left Guatemala to work in the U.S., and his grandmother began to drink heavily. There was no food in the house, he said, and his grandmother often kicked him out. Sometimes he would find food and shelter with the neighbors. Most of the time, he was hungry.

Although an aunt helped pay the smuggling fee to get him to the U.S., he felt out of place in her Los Angeles home. It was difficult living with a woman he hadn’t seen in years. His cousins, who had been like brothers to him, had grown and changed.

“It felt like I was living with strangers,” he said.

After his aunt lost her job, Gomez moved to Casa Libre. There he learned how to apply to stay in the U.S. legally. Case Libre is providing one of his college scholarships.

According to a 2015 Migration Policy Institute report, the recent unaccompanied arrivals in the U.S. will require significant financial investments in health, education and well-being if they are to succeed. Without family or a stable home, the young people are vulnerable to many perils besides homelessness, such as gang recruitment.

However, the report found that there are few services and support systems available to them after their initial processing.

“Therapists, case managers, lawyers, all sorts of directors of various community centers say, ‘We don’t know what really happens to them after we’ve served them,’” said Canizales.

Katya Cengel reported this story with the support of a fellowship from the International Reporting Project.