On Sunday, March 22, Luis crawled into a car in a parking lot on Long Island and tried to go to sleep. The temperature dipped down to 36 degrees. There was no food in the car, just water in the trunk. He fought the urge to go to a nearby 7-Eleven. He didn’t want to infect anyone.
Luis called Christina Rosalin Peña, his legal representative at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, who is working on his asylum claim. He left her a message and explained that after testing positive for COVID-19 and being kicked out of his house, he was staying in a car in a parking lot, trying to isolate himself from other people. He told Peña in the voicemail that at one point he thought he might have a respiratory emergency.
“I don’t know if maybe there is a shelter around here, I haven’t heard of anything like that,” Luis said in a voicemail obtained by NewNowNext. “I turn my car on so that I can have the heating on because it’s gotten pretty cold here. I hope I’ll make it out of this, God willing.”
There is no help for people like Luis, whose last name has been withheld to protect his safety. The 33-year-old queer asylum seeker arrived last March in a migrant caravan from Honduras, where LGBTQ people face elevated rates of violence. Without legal status, the Nassau County Department of Health said he was not eligible for assistance, says Peña. That meant no cash assistance, food stamps, or help finding a safe place to isolate.
The Nassau County website has a disclaimer at the bottom: “No resident should be sleeping outside in the freezing cold.” It also provides numbers to call in the event that someone is at risk of homelessness. In Luis’ case, these services did not apply because of his legal status.
Multiple attempts by NewNowNext to reach Nassau County officials for comment were unsuccessful.
On Monday morning, Luis spoke to Peña by phone. He was trying to crank the heat in the car and warm up. He hadn’t eaten a real meal since lunch the previous day. Dinner the previous evening had just been spinach, and he was getting scared.
“He told me, ’I’m afraid of leaving the car,’” Peña says. “’I don’t want to get people sick.’”
The Department of Health had told Peña to call the hospital. She called Southside Hospital in Bayshore.
“He can’t self-quarantine in his car,” Peña told the hospital worker who picked up. “He’s going to expose other people. He also can’t recover from coronavirus in his car. He’s potentially going to get more people sick if he’s not somewhere safe.”
But Luis had already been discharged. He couldn’t be admitted to the hospital without severe symptoms.
“So at that point I just thought no one’s going to help him,” says Peña. “I remember seeing stories online and on the news about people reaching all these dead ends with trying to get help for coronavirus and being on hold for hours, calling, getting voicemails. I just thought, He’s in a parking lot right now, he’s going to die.”
Luis had been talking to another volunteer at a migrant shelter when he crossed into Mexico last year. Peña got in touch with her, and together they tried to come up with a plan to find Luis housing. Peña considered a hotel, but all hotels needed guests to provide government ID, something Luis didn’t have. Luis also worried that hotel staff would turn him away if they saw him wearing a mask.
As his legal representative, Peña couldn’t raise money to secure Luis food or housing. Other advocates had to do that work. By Monday evening, they had placed Luis in an apartment.
Luis’ health had deteriorated. On Tuesday, he was talking on the phone. By Wednesday, he couldn’t make calls.
Peña wakes up every morning and checks her phone, nervous that Luis won’t have logged on. “I just either text him or I sometimes I just check WhatsApp to see if he’s been online, to see if he’s literally still alive,” she says. “I’ll check the timestamps of the last time he was online.”
Luis had told Peña that he believed he became infected at a friend’s house on Long Island that was full of other undocumented people. Peña worries that coronavirus is spreading among undocumented New Yorkers who are crowded into small residences and, unlike Luis, don’t have legal resources.
“You know, you can recover from this if you go home and self-quarantine if you’re young and you’re healthy,” she says. “Well, not if you’re undocumented and you’re living out of a car, maybe not if you’re undocumented and you’re living in a house with all these other people who don’t have jobs, who don’t have friends to drop them off food. I know that our clients are particularly vulnerable.”
Peña argues that Luis’ case represents a large scale failure, not just in human rights but also in public health, where undocumented residents who aim to isolate during the pandemic have no options.
“The surgeon general says if you’re undocumented you can go to a hospital, you can get tested,” she says. “You shouldn’t be afraid. But what does that really mean for someone who doesn’t have health insurance, who doesn’t have a place to live? What does that mean when you go to a hospital and they give you discharge papers in English?”