Across Washington state and throughout the country, increasing numbers of refugee families — displaced people from war-torn parts of the world — are confronting homelessness all over again in their new homeland.
Every few weeks or so, the family of 10 would pack up and move yet again — the father and boys finding a bed or space on the floor with family friends in one part of King County, the mother and girls in another.
Somali refugees who were first resettled in upstate New York before relocating here last fall, they shuffled between the homes of friends willing to put them up, sometimes sharing two- or three-bedroom units with the eight or 10 people who lived there.
Once, the mother recounts, all 10 shared a single bedroom in a home, using each other as pillows to get through the nights.
Refugee families like this one — displaced people from war-torn parts of the world — are confronting homelessness all over again in their new homeland.
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As tough to navigate as the homeless-support system can be for growing numbers of families in the Northwest, it can prove profoundly challenging for refugees, who may be unfamiliar with how the system works, may have few if any marketable job skills, often don’t speak English and don’t understand the culture here.
Yet despite those obstacles, advocates for refugees lack any real voice or influence in plans underway to change the homeless-support system.
“We are bringing people from refugee camps to get a new start in the U.S. only to see them Dumpster-diving somewhere,” said Tom Medina, who heads the state’s office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance.
As part of the federal government’s commitment to helping displaced and persecuted people around the world, the U.S. will resettle about 80,000 refugees this year — about half the total number of those that get resettled across the globe.
Last year, some 2,600 — many of them Iraqis and ethnic minorities from Myanmar (also known as Burma) and Bhutan — came to Washington. The state is second only to Minnesota in drawing refugees who were first resettled in other parts of the U.S.
For many unable to find work, the housing shuffle begins when the government assistance they were receiving runs out, or their lease expires and the rent goes up, or the family dynamic changes in a way that they can no longer cover housing expenses.
In January, King County’s most recent annual one-night homeless count found families of refugees and immigrants that together totaled 978 adults and children living in shelters or in transitional housing — up from 638 the previous year.
That doesn’t account for the untold numbers who bed down in hotels, camp out in churches or squeeze into the already cramped apartments of friends or relatives.
Often, families that do have housing struggle to hang on to it.
That’s been the case for An Na and three of her children, ethnic Karenni from Myanmar who resettled in Kent last year from a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border, where the children were born.
A seamstress and farmer in her homeland, the 56-year-old An Na speaks virtually no English and is illiterate even in her native language. She has been unable to find work, but with $922 in monthly public assistance could rent a one-bedroom apartment in Kent for $700 a month.
But when her older son’s benefits ran out, their household income dropped by more than a third, leaving the family scrambling to pay rent and utilities.
Hoping to help make up the difference, that son moved to North Carolina to work in a chicken factory.
His younger brother soon dropped out of Kent-Meridian High School to follow him. Both have since moved to Chicago in hopes of getting jobs in another chicken factory there.
Now their sister, Oo Meh, a vibrant, outgoing 17-year-old, who in little more than a year has gained popularity at Kent-Meridian, has accepted a job with a local nonprofit and decided not to return to high school in the fall. She plans to attend community college later, using income from her job to pay much of the household expenses.
“There are a lot of us kids” in the same situation, she said. “We need to work for the family because our parents don’t understand nothing. We need to support them.”
Jobs dry up
As invisible as homeless families are in general, refugee and immigrant families are even less likely to show up on the streets.
Many are from cultures where people look out for one another, so it’s not uncommon for one family to take in others still trying to get their footing in the U.S.
Some in their desperation have even chosen shelter over food — using their food stamps to buy groceries for others in exchange for money to pay the rent.
Circumstances became so dire for one family that they staked a spot outside the office of Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn before they were eventually given vouchers to stay in a hotel along Aurora Avenue North.
“It’s hard to get a handle on how big the problem is because many of them have a roof over their heads,” said Medina, of the state refugee-assistance office.
“They surf on to the next family willing to take them, but they can’t stay that way forever. They are still homeless.”
Many of them arrived in the U.S. within the past two years. Some lost what low-paying jobs they had when the economy went sour, while others never found work to begin with.
Many came here from other states after hearing that the Seattle area is welcoming and tolerant, that there are jobs and services, that public-assistance benefit levels are higher and the weather less severe.
But once here, they quickly find high rents and years-long waiting lists for public and subsidized housing. And for many, jobs don’t materialize, either.
Among the 50 states, Washington has one of the worst job-placement records for refugees, despite $8.8 million spent last year in state and federal funds disbursed through a network of community-based organizations charged with helping refugees learn English and find work.
“They come and they’re trying to assimilate into a culture that is entirely foreign and unfathomable for them,” said Tamara Brown, housing director for Solid Ground, one of the region’s largest service providers for homeless people.
Brown and other homeless-service providers say they sometimes feel ill-equipped to address the myriad challenges facing refugee families and believe more resources should be devoted to making sure refugees don’t join the growing ranks of homeless.
“They have so many specialized areas of need — education and serious medical issues, PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], they have large families, we need interpreters to talk to them — the cultural issues are huge.”
The Obama administration is conducting the first major review of the nation’s 30-year-old resettlement program. But even before the findings are released, the administration is preparing to announce an increase in the number of refugees it will invite into the country next year.
State Department officials say refugees in camps overseas are told about the hard realities of the American economy, giving them the option to stay or go to another country.
But refugees themselves say that’s a tough call — that after years in squalid refugee camps, it’s hard to let go of their high hopes about life in America.
The tall, thin Somali mother of eight arrived in the Seattle area with her family after 13 years in a refugee camp in Kenya. She’d heard the warnings but didn’t want to believe them. Now, embarrassed to be homeless, she asked that her name not be used.
“They told us there was a lack of jobs and it will not be like we think — but better than what we have now — and that there would be benefits if we have no job,” said the woman, dressed in traditional Muslim wear and speaking through a translator.
In the camp, she said, there were no real options for them to work; their daily lives were virtually controlled by others.
“I knew it would be better here,” she said. “It had to be.”
For the last three months, the family of 10 was sheltered in a five-bedroom house in a former military-housing complex in Kent, run by the Multi-Service Center, which serves the homeless in South King County.
But after 90 days in the emergency shelter, the family’s time was up, and they are on the move once again, depending on others to take them in.
Together with state and local governments, the federal government invests heavily in helping refugees settle in.
Across the country, the State Department contracts with 10 agencies known as “volags” — short for voluntary agencies — to support refugees, helping them find housing, enroll their children in school, apply for benefits and look for work.
Separately, the federal government last year gave $4.2 million to Washington state and the state kicked in $4.6 million more. Washington, in turn, awards contracts to a network of community-based service providers to help refugees learn English, and get job training and other services.
In terms of direct financial help, refugees are eligible for cash assistance and food stamps — $360 per month for up to eight months for single adults. Families with children under 18 are eligible for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, known as TANF.
A family of three is eligible for $562 — higher than in all but 10 states — with the amount increasing about $100 for each additional eligible person, up to a maximum of $1,320.
Additionally, the federal government provides upfront cash for each arriving refugee — $1,100 per person.
Officials with the volags say they often use that cash to pay as much of the family’s household expenses as possible in advance before turning over the balance to the refugees themselves.
The volags are responsible for finding housing for families that’s safe and — based on their TANF levels — also affordable.
But often the numbers don’t pencil out.
A family of six gets $866 in monthly TANF benefits, for example, and a family of five gets $762. But rent alone averages $750 a month for a two-bedroom apartment in South King County — without utilities.
In the past, when the economy was strong and jobs — even low-wage positions — plentiful, families struggling to keep up with the rent could count on one or two people in the household finding work to help keep everyone afloat.
But without jobs, most families find themselves depending on the kindness of strangers to help them survive from month to month.
In Kent, An Na and her family have been on both the giving and receiving end of that support since arriving here last year.
Even when her household income dropped below the cost of her monthly rent, she reached out to help other Burmese families who were also staving off homelessness. At one point, a father and son were crashing on their living-room floor.
Recently, said An Na’s daughter, Oo Meh, one of her teachers learned of their struggles and paid the family’s $180 electric bill.
And the Coalition for Refugees from Burma, an all-volunteer organization of Burmese immigrants, has been scouring the philanthropic landscape trying to find them financial assistance.
“She needs a job; but realistically, she won’t be able to find a job anytime soon,” said Simon Khin, who quit his software-engineering job to help run that group with his wife and others.
State Department officials acknowledge the current job market is creating a problem for many refugees but say that, as bad as things are in this country, conditions in the camps are even worse.
The federal government is studying how it might resettle people in areas of the U.S. where there are more available jobs. For example, with the recession coming to Washington later than other parts of the country, this region might have been one of those places.
But even in good times the community-based groups that contract with the state to help refugees find work have a poor track record.
In 2007, for example, 48 percent of refugees in the state were placed in jobs at an average hourly rate of $9.25. Last year, only 28 percent found work.
Locally, groups that work with homeless refugees and immigrants say that while their needs are particularly pressing, they are receiving little attention in plans to change the way homeless families in general get help.
“The needs of refugees are seen as an afterthought,” said Someireh Amirfaiz, executive director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance in Seattle.
Debbi Knowles, a King County program manager who is writing a new plan to end family homelessness, wants it to reflect the challenges facing refugees.
But advocates, she said, have yet to provide any real concrete ideas about how that might be done.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org