Polish Immigrant Elders Struggle to Make Every Dollar Count

Ryszard, a Polish immigrant, Ryszard spent a year on the street, now he is getting ready to return to Poland - Photo: Marcin Zurawicz

Ryszard spent a year living on the street, now he is preparing to return to Poland. (Photo: Marcin Zurawicz)

Part 1

Brooklyn, NY—Ryszard, 63, can breathe a little easier now. Becoming homeless was an unexpected turn of events after living in the U.S. for almost a decade, but he finally got some long overdue money from a former employer—enough to rent a place at last.

Ryszard (who withheld his last name because he is undocumented) is among the growing number of older Polish immigrants hit especially hard by the recession, regardless of their legal status in the United States.

Polish community-based organizations have been swarmed with elders seeking help. “A lot of our senior clients just come and ask if there are any assistance programs they can apply for,” said Bozena Nowak, a social worker at Polonians Organized to Minister to Our Community (POMOC), a nonprofit organization based in Queens, N.Y., which helps mostly Polish immigrants.

“Many of them came to the U.S. as adults and worked at low-paid jobs. For that reason their monthly Social Security retirement benefits can be as low as three or four hundred dollars. Supplemental Security Income, if they qualify for it, may increase that amount by a few hundred dollars. But in New York it’s still very hard to survive on that,” Nowak said.

Supporting Family Back Home

Ryszard can only afford the middle room in a railroad apartment in Greenpoint, a Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Furnished merely with a bed and a wardrobe, Ryszard’s space is separated by a thin curtain from the rest of the apartment and its two other tenants. But after he spent almost a year on the street, Ryszard said this $280 a month space feels like a luxury.

Ten years ago he overstayed his visa hoping to make enough money to support his family, who remained in a small town in northeastern Poland where the unemployment rate was very high. During most of his time in America, Ryszard worked as an electrician or at demolition sites.

But the economic slowdown made jobs scarce, if not impossible to get.

For those immigrants without legal status, like Ryszard, job hunting is especially challenging. “I could possibly do jobs like truck driving, but in New York State undocumented immigrants can’t obtain a drivers license,” he said.

“All of a sudden everybody also started to ask me for Social Security number, and I don’t have one,” Ryszard complained. With no legal status, he is ineligible for unemployment benefits or any other form of federal or state help. Without a safety net, Ryszard’s situation became increasingly perilous.

Winter on the Streets

Around a year ago, he could no longer afford to pay rent and had to give up his apartment. “I asked my friends to store my stuff,” Ryszard said.

“Winter was the worst. Sometimes I slept in a shelter. Other times in a basement of one church in Greenpoint that opened its doors for the homeless during the coldest nights. I survived,” he recalled with a nervous laugh.

Ryszard wasn’t alone in his struggles. Several Polish men in the Greenpoint area have ended up on the street because they lacked an occupation and income.

Unemployment has risen a small but significant amount more for immigrant elders than for native-born elder Americans, said Aaron Terrazas, associate policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, in Washington, D.C.

Terrazas, who analyzed the U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, added that the immigrant employment gap is “kind of a similar story to what we see among the total working age population.”

In general, seniors are struggling with the consequences of the recession, said Bobbie Sackman, Director of Public Policy for the Council of Senior Centers and Services, which represents more than 200 nonprofit senior service agencies in New York.

“If you use the national criteria for poverty that the federal government uses, one of five seniors in this city lives below poverty,” she said. The federal poverty line for the fiscal year 2009-2010 is a scant $10,830 for a single person. Established by the government a half century ago, many say the U.S. poverty-line formula doesn’t include the rising costs of housing and health care.

Even Food Hard To Afford

More seniors have been going to the POMOC pantry to pick up food donations, Nowak said. “The biggest jump in the number of people collecting food was in 2008. In June that year we gave provisions to 20 people who were 60 or older. Then only a couple of months later we were already serving 80 of them.”

Nowak has assisted many seniors with applying for food stamps, which can provide up to $200 per person per month in New York.

State food-stamp statistics do not reveal the age of recipients, but in the past two years, there’s been an almost 30 percent jump in the number of people needing the stamps. Data from the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance show that in February 2010, the last month for which statistics are currently available, there were 2.7 million food-stamps recipients in New York State, and1.66 million of them were  in New York City.

The recession seems to have forced a change in common attitudes among Polish immigrants. “In the past they would feel too proud to apply for food stamps or to get help from our food pantry. Now some people really don’t have a choice,” Nowak said.

Meanwhile, Ryszard has decided to return to his wife and three adult children in Poland before the money from his former employer runs out, forcing him to live on the street again.

“I don’t think the U.S. economy will improve any time soon,” Ryszard said. “Now at least I’m able to get a plane ticket. And I will have a little money left to take back with me. It would be horrible to go back after 10 years with absolutely nothing in my pocket.”

This is the first of two articles written by Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska of Polish Daily News as a project for New America Media’s Ethnic Elders News Fellowship, supported by The Atlantic Philanthropies. To read Part 2 of this story, click here.

AboutEwa Kern-Jedrychowska
Ewa Kern-Jedrychowska was born and raised in Warsaw, Poland, and has lived in Queens, NY, since 2001. A former Feet in 2 Worlds reporter, Ewa now works as a staff reporter for DNA.info covering Queens. She was formerly a reporter for Nowy Dzienik/The Polish Daily News, where she covered stories about Polish immigrants in the U.S.