Homeless women in Denver: Struggles of an undocumented immigrant seeking shelter

In September, Erica Guzman, twenty, and Stefanie Cardwell, 23, spent nights sleeping in their car. The two women, who have been dating for four years, say they had nowhere else to go. The search for shelter is especially difficult for Guzman, an undocumented Canadian immigrant. We spoke to the couple for this week's feature, "Bed Check" -- and here, we take a closer look at their daily battles and the circumstances that led them to homelessness.

The two women spend a lot of their time at the Gathering Place, a daytime center for women that offers a wide range of services and helps connect them to other programs and night-time shelters. The organization sees around 1,600 different women each month.

After nights where they were forced to sleep outside in a car, the couple eventually found the Gathering Place, which helped connect them to emergency beds at the Delores Project, a Denver shelter exclusively for women.

Both Guzman and Cardwell have strained relationships with their families, which is partly why they are now without homes and spend a lot of time during the week trying to secure a safe place to sleep indoors.

Guzman was born in Canada but has lived in the United States for around eighteen years -- enough time to qualify for the Obama administration's deferred action initiative, which allows young undocumented immigrants brought here by their parents to avoid deportation and get work permits. The policy is similar to the failed DREAM Act; it doesn't provide legal status for these undocumented immigrants, but puts off possible deportation for up to two years.

Beyond the struggle to find a bed, Guzman's priority is working on the application she needs to submit to get identification and avoid deportation.

"I can work, go to school, get scholarships and then attorneys can help me get permanent residence," says Guzman, who lived in Alabama before she came to Denver. "I feel like everything will fall into place."

In the meantime, though, she has to devote most of her energy and resources to attorneys helping her through the process.

"It's very stressful," she says. " attorney knows how motivated I am."

Twice a week, Guzman and Cardwell have to enter a lottery run out of the Gathering Place to secure spots for the next half-week at the Delores Project. Before that shelter began its wintertime overflow with additional beds, they would regularly lose the lottery, a process described in detail in our print feature. In these instances, they are forced to call the Delores Project directly several hours after the lottery results are announced and see if there are any additional beds available beyond the ones the shelter sets aside for women at the Gathering Place.

"If I get a bed and she doesn't, then we have to sleep in the car," Cardwell says. "If she doesn't get in, I'll give up my bed.... I'm more worried about her. If she can't get in to Delores, then I won't go."

Continue for more of our interview with Erica Guzman and Stefanie Cardwell. Cardwell recently worked at a fresh produce center in Denver, but ended up getting sick and lost her job. She is looking for work again. Guzman says that due to her undocumented status, she can't secure any kind of job or enroll in any programs.

It's hard to turn things around in their lives given the daily anxieties of finding shelter, Cardwell says.

"The stress actually makes me kind of bipolar. I'll be happy one moment, and then all of the sudden, I'll start thinking and then I'll get teary eyed or really get mad and kinda go off on her just for the stupidest stuff," she says. "I hate stress. I honestly hate it."

Cardwell is estranged from her father, but is close to her mother who is back in Mississippi.

"I would do anything in my power to have my mom next to me," she says.

Guzman isn't in contact with her family right now, either, and says that she has no choice but to be homeless at this point.

"It's very depressing...knowing that my mom is [close] and I can't even go to her for help," she says, explaining that her mother has been emotionally abusive to her. "It wouldn't be a good environment for me.... To actually go back there, that's more depressing than being in this situation that I'm in now. If I'm homeless, I feel like I can do it on my own, I can build myself up."

She adds, "It motivates me.... I don't want to be like this forever. I want to make something of myself."

Guzman and Cardwell say that one day, they would like to run a shelter for women. When Guzman was five, her family struggled with homelessness and it was one of the worst experiences of her life, she says.

"They separated us and I wasn't allowed to be with my mother," she recalls. "I remember sleeping outside and being terrified."

That is why someday she hopes to run a shelter that accommodates families.

"We want to open a shelter...and give back," Guzman says. "I dream about doing it."

Since the two have become homeless, they've also befriended a woman named Teresa Turner, 49, who recently become homeless and goes through the lottery process with them at the Gathering Place. Turner says she wants to help the two on their homeless shelter one day.

During those stressful lotteries, they stick together -- and Cardwell even lets women at the Delores Project store their belongings in her car.

"I feel like a baby all over again," says Turner, who lost her housing a few months ago. "I've got twenty-somethings telling me where to go and what to do. I was street-smart once, but now I'm 49, and I'm not so street smart."

Having support from other women and finding programs through the Delores Project and the Gathering Place have been crucial, Turner says.

"They've taught me that I'm stronger than I think I am and that I can get stuff done," she says. "I thought in the beginning when I became homeless, there were tons of programs and shelters -- things that help you get clothes, food, blankets...and I got out there and I realized there isn't really very many places to go."

She adds, "I'm learning a lot and I'm growing a lot."

More from our News archive: "Homeless women in Denver: Julie Hale tells her story about the struggle to survive"

Follow Sam Levin on Twitter at @SamTLevin. E-mail the author at [email protected].

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Sam Levin
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