Why Ending Homelessness Isn’t That Easy
Housing is only part of the equation in Arlington.
Celestine, 45 (who asked that her last name not be used), knows this scenario all too well. Her family was living a typical middle-class life in Arlington before they lost it all—the three-bedroom apartment, the car and her husband’s $60,000 annual salary.
A native of Madagascar, Celestine came to the U.S. as a nanny and met Fidel, who is also from the island nation off Africa. Soon they were expecting a baby: Loranzo, now 16. Less than three years later they welcomed another son, Elizo. Celestine still remembers their disbelief when a preschool teacher suggested something was wrong with Elizo, who has difficulty making eye contact and paying attention. He was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Arlington’s school system did offer opportunities for the boys: special education for Elizo and a chance for Loranzo to star on the wrestling mat. Weekends were filled with cheering Loranzo at his matches and taking Elizo to swim at the Audrey Moore Recreation Center in Annandale.
And then, it all came crashing down.
Fidel had worked 26 years as a driver for the Embassy of Madagascar in D.C., but his country requires that anyone over 60 get a one-year permit to continue working. He did. But as his 62nd birthday approached in late 2015, no renewal was granted.
“I don’t like to talk about it. It really, really hurts,” Celestine says, choking back sobs.
Without the paperwork, Fidel couldn’t work. And though their sons were U.S. citizens, Celestine and Fidel were in the United States on A-2 visas designed for foreign government workers and their families. Without the job, they were suddenly undocumented. And without documentation, Fidel lost the driver’s license that was key to his livelihood.
Now they face a Catch-22: He can’t get work without a driver’s license, he can’t get a license without immigration documentation, and he can’t get employment-based immigration status without work.
Celestine’s dark eyes turn desperate at the mention of moving her family back to Madagascar, a land her sons have never visited, where more than 70 percent of people live below the poverty line, according to the CIA World Factbook. She says she would worry about the entire family’s safety there, but it is Elizo’s fate that steels her position that moving is not an option.
The special education Elizo needs just doesn’t exist in Madagascar. She fears the schools would handle his autism by beating him.
To stave off homelessness, the couple spent all the money they had saved for their children’s college. By April 2016, they had to move to Sullivan House, an Arlington shelter run by the nonprofit Bridges to Independence (formerly the Arlington-Alexandria Coalition for the Homeless), which eventually helped them find a subsidized apartment in Shirlington.
Celestine and Fidel both have been looking for jobs. She currently earns $10 an hour as a waitress, but can’t get more than 25 hours per week. She’d prefer to work in housekeeping, but has been turned down for many jobs because she can’t get a Virginia ID card without immigration documentation.