Lisbeth Camacho and her son, Jose, stand for a portrait outside Sheridan Market. (All photos by Abel Uribe for Nourishing Hope) 

Lisbeth Camacho is starting over.

She’s one of more than 41,000 migrants and asylum seekers to arrive in Chicago since Aug. 31, 2022. She left her native Venezuela last September, accompanied by family including her three children and two grandchildren.

In the Zulia state of Venezuela, she worked as a surgical nurse at a government-run hospital for more than 20 years. Since arriving in Chicago, she’s been cleaning houses to make ends meet.

“I have no problem starting over from the bottom,” Camacho said.

But like so many others, she needs a work permit in order to make ends meet consistently for her family.

A mother and daughter receive groceries at the Sheridan Market on a recent spring day.

A mother and daughter receive groceries at the Sheridan Market on a recent spring day.

Last September, President Joe Biden expanded Temporary Protected Status, the federal work permit program, to include 470,000 Venezuelans, according to news reports, but many, like Camacho, are still waiting to receive a work permit. Many advocates in Chicago have also called for the program to be expanded to include other longtime undocumented workers, too.

On a recent spring day at Nourishing Hope’s Sheridan Market, work permits were top of mind for many families receiving food. For Camacho and her family, the arduous journey to the U.S. has already been worthwhile. The children have been flourishing in Chicago schools, she said. People have been mostly welcoming.

But they’re eager to receive work permits so they can work more and rely on food pantries less, she said.

“This program helps us a lot,” said Camacho, 52, of Sheridan Market. “This week, we didn’t have much work, so I didn’t have money for food. This helps a lot. And I love the way we’re treated here.”

Kaily Ortiz and her family endured a long arduous journey to start a new life in Chicago.

Kaily Ortiz and her family endured a long, arduous journey to Chicago for a better life.

There’s a false but persistent misperception that people who turn to food assistance programs don’t work or don’t want to work.

That’s simply not true. Many of the people who turn to Nourishing Hope are working at least one job, but are still struggling to make ends meet due to a host of other factors, including insufficient wages, precarious work schedules and rising costs.

Nationally, more than half of all food-insecure households work full-time jobs, according to recent data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. Older adults and people living with disabilities — populations that are disproportionately affected by food insecurity — often are not able to work full-time jobs.

Migrant families face additional challenges beyond work permits. Undocumented non-citizens are not eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, though other “lawfully present non-citizens” are eligible, according to this explainer from the National Council on Aging.

Kaily Ortiz is eager to work. The 31-year-old Nicaraguan spent months traveling to the U.S. with her husband and their two daughters, ages 8 and 10. They finally arrived in Chicago last April.

Kaily Ortiz receives food from Sheridan Market for her two young daughters.

Kaily Ortiz receives food from Sheridan Market for her two young daughters.

In her home country, Ortiz studied to become a natural gas engineer, she said. For now, she’s still waiting for her work permit. Her husband has worked for a local church, but they’ve mostly relied on food pantries without being able to legally work.

“This place is a blessing,” Ortiz said of the Sheridan Market. “It helps with all of our basic food needs since we’re not really able to work yet.”

Their long ordeal included five days in the Darien Gap, Ortiz said, the treacherous jungle passage connecting Central and South America, where they were robbed of their food and personal belongings.

What kept them going through such ordeals?

“The certainty of arriving here to live in a better country to give my daughters hope for a better future,” she said.