As economy falters, some immigrants excluded from safety net

Bernardo Barra says he stopped going to church when he no longer had any money to put in the offering plate.

"It was very sad. No job. No apartment. No money in my pocket," says Barra, 65.

The last two years have been difficult for Barra. After 15 years of working in the United States after coming here from Costa Rica, he could no longer find work in factories, restaurants and hotels and became homeless.

Most people in Barra's situation would apply for unemployment, job training or food stamps. But these resources just aren't an option. Barra is an illegal immigrant who cannot get a social security number, so most programs that could help him get back on his feet are closed to him.

Barra is one of many homeless undocumented immigrants living in Chicago, says Israel Vargas, director of Pilsen's San Jose Obrero Mission.

Exact figures, however, are elusive.

"There is a large population of undocumented men and women that are homeless and nobody's looking at them," says Vargas.

Marquito Daudo, program staff supervisor at the mission, says the undocumented can either sleep on the streets or take their chances in substandard housing.

"You can't imagine it," says Daudo of the housing options. "They have just a small room, five or six people to a room. At night, it becomes a bedroom for everyone."

The problem is widespread. Rosa Perea, assistant director of the Centro Communitario Juan Diego in South Chicago, says she is often moved to tears after visiting undocumented families in her neighborhood.

Recently, she talked to a woman who found rat inside her baby's crib. She said the woman was terrified and now kept the baby in her own bed, but she could not afford to move anywhere else.

"It's everyday. It's always a different story," says Perea. "Sometimes you can help them and sometimes you can't."

Perea says there just aren't many places where people can turn to for help.

"In South Chicago, there's not a lot of agencies that have anything for people who do not have a social security number," says Perea.

Vargas says illegal immigrants can sometimes find food or temporary shelter through community organizations or church programs, which help their immediate conditions, but they can't get access to programs like job search or training programs, which would get their families off the street permanently.

These programs, Vargas says, are federally funded and can only be used by legal citizens.

"Federal funding says if you cannot show me a social security number on your report of the people that you serve, then you should not have served them," says Vargas. "So people cannot serve them."

Experts say that even when people can get access to services, they are often too afraid to seek help.

"The stereotype in the media is that undocumented immigrants are flooding our system, but in actuality, they are the least likely to access services," says Bernadette Sanchez, associate professor of psychology at DePaul University.

Sanchez says illegal immigrants often wait until an emergency arises before they seek help, and are often dealing with extreme stress, mental illness and depression as a result of their situation.

"You're constantly stressed that you're going to be found out and be reported, or even if you're legal, that your wife or your brother (are undocumented)," says Sanchez. "It ends up being this huge domino effect."

The stress of being undocumented often leads to more complicated problems, including drug and alcohol abuse, says Christine George, assistant research professor at Loyola University's Center for Urban Research and Learning.

George says there simply aren't enough resources out there to help.

"There's only private solutions. There's no public solutions," says George. "There is just nothing public in place to help these individuals."

George adds that the typical stereotype of an illegal immigrant as Mexican isn't the whole picture. She says Chicago has many Polish and Eastern European undocumented immigrants who face these problems.

"It's not just a Latino story," says George.

Across nationalities, Sanchez says undocumented immigrants are here because of the promise of prosperity for themselves and their families.

"These are people who have the same dream that other people in the U.S. have," she says.

That kind of hope, Sanchez says, is something every American can understand. She points to a sign at the North side community organization, Centro Romero, that reads "No hay ser humano es ilegal" - "No human being is illegal."

As for Bernardo Barra, he's one month into a program that will help him find a job and decent housing. He came to the United States, he says, because he was looking for better life.

Has he found it?

"Not yet," says Barra.

Listen to Israel Vargas talk about visiting a local family.

Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12.