Irene Cabello says one reason why Latinos don't go to homeless shelters or try to find social services is because they don't consider themselves homeless. She never thought of herself as homeless, even when she lost her apartment and had nowhere to go.
"I never even considered that I was homeless," says Cabello. "I was in my mid-50s and never thought it would happen to me."
Cabello says she did what most people in her culture do - she stayed with family, doubling or even tripling up in overcrowded houses and apartments.
That pattern helps explain the low percentage of Chicago's Latino population that is in the shelter and homeless prevention system, say community leaders. Latinos make up 28 percent of Chicago's population, but only six percent of Latinos seek social services because of homelessness.
It was a central topic of yesterday's event on Latino homelessness - Todos Contamos, or Everyone Counts - the first forum on Latino homelessness in the Chicago region.
City clerk Miguel del Valle spoke at the event, saying the current definition of homelessness, which doesn't include families doubling up, is just too narrow. He says families living together is a regular part of Latino culture.
"Growing up, there were four of us is one bed," says del Valle. "It's a battle even to get it recognized."
Not seeing that aspect of homelessness means that there aren't as many services out there for Latino families, says Nancy Radner, chief executive officer of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness.
"We think, 'The Latino family takes care of itself,' and we don't see a need for anything else," says Radner.
Other advocates stressed the need to look behind the reason for homelessness. Israel Vargas, director of the San Jose Obrero Mission in Pilsen, says there aren't enough services helping Latino people find decent, steady jobs, which is the root cause of unstable housing.
"We need more services there for this specific population," says Vargas. "The way that a white or black person might go looking for employment may be different than how a Latino looks for a job."
Statistics from the National Council of La Raza presented today show that rates of Latino unemployement were much higher than for whites - 11.4 percent for Latinos as compared to 7.9 percent for whites.
In addition, Latino families in poverty spend a huge portion of their income on rent. Federal guidelines indicate that a family should spend no more than 30 percent of their income on housing to be financially sound. But Latinos under the poverty line in Chicago spend 59 percent of their income on rent alone, according to statistics from the Chicago Rehab Network.
The service providers, citizens and officials that gathered today said its up to the community to continue bringing the problem to light.
Del Valle says the Latino population in Chicago has to do more to speak up about the problem and not hide in the shadows.
"We have a lot of unused potential," says Del Valle. "We have a lot more muscle as Latinos than we use. We need to flex it more."
Irene Cabellos eventually went to a shelter, got in a social service program, which helped her find stable housing. That was almost five years ago, but even though her problem is solved, she's still working to keep other people from facing the same thing.
"Something is going to be done about this problem," says Irene Cabello. "It's going to be addressed specifically by Latinos, for Latinos, for all of us."
Staff Writer Megan Cottrell covers public housing for the Daily News. She can be reached at 773-362-5002, ext. 12, or megan [at] chitowndailynews [dot] org.