The Death of a Homeless Day Laborer

Last week’s death — probably from exposure — of a homeless day laborer in Staten Island is a grim reminder of the growing ranks of homeless immigrant laborers.

As NY1 news and other news organizations reported, 38-year-old Luis Reyes, a day laborer originally from Mexico, died Sunday in an abandoned house in the Port Richmond section of Staten Island.  Emergency medical workers were called to the house — where Reyes had reportedly slept without heat or or water for two months — but found that he’d been dead for hours.  The Rev. Terry Troia, executive director of Project Hospitality, which provideds homeless outreach and other services on Staten Island, said that Reyes had apparently died of exposure during the recent below-freezing weather.

Reyes was one of a growing number of homeless day laborers throughout New York City.  Many are immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America, and they’ve fallen victim to the virtual standstill in the local building industry, which only a few years ago had flourished and attracted many workers to New York.

Earlier this month, New York Times reporter Fernanda Santos wrote a moving portrait of some of the rising number of homeless day laborers in Queens:

“With their isolation and day-to-day existence, the laborers are perhaps the most invisible and hardest-to-reach victims of the recession, advocates and city officials say.

“No one knows for sure how many have become homeless since the downturn brought construction projects to a virtual standstill and sapped them of jobs that once paid as much as $200 a day. Most of them are illegal immigrants who may be on the streets one day and off the next, depending on their work.

“The rules of the shelter system do not suit them, they said. They might be placed too far from the job pickup site or miss curfew if a job runs too late or is too far from the shelter.”

At Coalition for the Homeless, we’ve seen more and more homeless day laborers, on visits to municipal shelters and out on the streets.  The last few times I rode with our Grand Central Food Program‘s vans — which distribute around 1,000 meals each night to homeless and hungry New Yorkers in Manhattan and the Bronx — I was amazed by the large groups of day laborers sleeping rough on the streets.  Juan de la Cruz, longtime director of our food program, says that many of the day laborers began appearing as the recession deepened and many are wary of seeking help from government agencies or in the municipal shelter system.  Juan and the food program volunteers work hard each night to make sure these vulnerable workers get a nutritious meal and access to other vital services.