Every year, hundreds of refugees come to Washington state to escape persecution, conflict or violence in their home countries. Washington consistently ranks as one of the top 10 states for new arrivals.
Many families come here after waiting long stretches in a refugee camp where food, water and shelter is a daily concern. Yet once they have resettled in the Seattle area, their struggles are often far from over. Some agencies that work with refugees in King County say they’ve seen an alarming rise in homelessness within this population of newcomers but they’re stymied by how to measure the increase.
Inside Mary’s Place day shelter in downtown Seattle, it looks like a women’s locker room, daycare and cafeteria all merged together. The activity is constant, especially around lunchtime when the daily crowd typically includes about 80 homeless women and children.
During a recent lunch, women shouted across the tables about the menu before a cook announced, “There is pork in the beans. Baked beans have pork!” An increasing number of refugees who come to Mary’s Place don’t eat certain meats for religious or cultural reasons.
“Lunch, dinner, food no problem,” said a refugee named Sarah, who asked to only use her first name. “Only home is problem.”
Sarah smiled as she watched her two younger kids play nearby. Her older two daughters were at school and her husband was out looking for work. Without a translator on-hand, Sarah struggled to explain her life here. Her family came to the US from Ethiopia six years ago; they recently moved from Minnesota to Seattle in search of better jobs.
In broken English, Sarah tried to describe the shelter where her family’s slept for the past few weeks. It’s a long bus ride away, she said, and sighed. The family gets up at dawn, Sarah said, and they take public transit all over the place: to school, social services and to look for jobs. Shelter life is hard, she said. Then, as if on cue, her two-year-old son crashed off his chair to the tile floor with a piercing wail that ended our interview.
Liz McDaniel started working at Mary’s Place four years ago. Back then, homeless refugee families would trickle in. Now, she said, about one out of every four families has refugee status. The shelter is on pace to serve about 400 families this year.
“I’ve seen it building slowly but it’s really taken a huge upswing in the last year,” McDaniel said.
She sees a few reasons for the increase: This is one of the only shelters that takes entire families, and word has spread in the refugee network. Plus, the recession seems to be dragging on longer in this community.
Staff at Mary’s Place have felt the cultural shift as they tackle language barriers, ethnic differences, and even their own guidelines for food donations. “Our protocol has always been for last 14 years, if there’s protein you take it," McDaniel said. “Now we look and if the protein is pork, do we take it?”
Some refugee families wind up here after only a few weeks or months in the US. Several families arrive straight from the airport or the Greyhound station across the street. “And then they get here expecting someone to take care of them, someone to say ‘It’s ok, there’s a place for you here,’” McDaniel said. “And reality is, there isn’t.”
Refugee Services Struggle To Keep Up
Other non-profits in King County are also struggling to keep up with the spike in the number of homeless refugees. “We realize that the number is just skyrocketing,” said Someirah Amirfaiz, director of the Refugee Women’s Alliance in Seattle. The nearly 30-year-old organization provides classes, social services and resources to refugees in King and Snohomish counties.
Amirfaiz says ReWA has assisted nearly 2,000 homeless refugees in the past two years. Seeing this growing need ReWA applied for several new grants to add more homeless services, but only a little money came through.
This brings up a frustrating challenge for ReWA and similar service providers: Potential funders say, “show me the numbers.” However, there’s very little data about homeless refugees because nobody seems to be in charge of tracking it.
On the federal census, there’s no checkbox for “refugee.” In King County, the annual homeless count did show a steady increase in refugees from 2007-2010. But then, in 2011, the survey stopped specifically tracking them due to a change in federal reporting requirements.
“I refer to refugee and immigrants as the invisible minorities,” Amirfaiz said.
“We only keep tabs on them, so to speak, while they’re on public assistance,” said Tom Medina, chief of the Washington State Office of Refugee and Immigrant Assistance. “Once you’re off assistance, we don’t see you. So you’re sort of invisible to us.”
For that reason, Medina mentioned he doesn’t even know the total number of refugees in Washington state. He joked: “We’re not big brother.”
State Holds The Line On Refugee Intake
Part of Medina’s job is to help determine how many refugees the state can handle, by looking at factors like unemployment, available public funds and housing costs. In recent years, the state has taken in about 2,000 annual refugees, but Medina says the volunteer resettlement agencies want to boost that number higher.
"I’ve been holding them off because I think the economy’s a little tenuous right now,” Medina said. “Until we see a stronger upward movement in that, I don’t want to bring refugees into the state to see them fail.”
Medina struggled to explain why some recent arrivals would end up homeless. He said the state requires local resettlement agencies to have housing for every refugee placed here. New refugees are also eligible for government assistance but Medina pointed out that those cash grants are minimal, with payments of less than $400 a month for a family of two.
Medina’s agency does gather some data about homeless refugees, but he said it’s far from comprehensive. Still, those numbers also show a slight increase during the recession.
Regardless of whether more refugees are in fact ending up homeless, Medina said the response should not be to shut the door on new arrivals. But rather, he said part of the solution is to find a better way to meet refugees’ needs when they land here.
“We bring them here and put them on a welfare system that’s aimed at US citizens who’ve fallen on hard times,” Medina said. “It is not a good fit for refugees, and they probably don’t know what hit them.”
For many new refugees, their federal assistance runs out in eight months. So once they arrive, the countdown clock is ticking to learn English, find a job and become self-sufficient in a foreign world they now call home.