SLC refugee agencies fight for time, money

by BRADY LEAVITT

The flight attendant lifts the microphone to his lips and smiles. He announces that in an effort to cut costs the scheduled pilot has been laid off. Fortunately, a good-intentioned passenger has skimmed a copy of the pilot’s handbook and is volunteering to fly the plane.

It is a metaphor used by Patrick Poulin, the resettlement director of Salt Lake City’s International Rescue Committee, to describe the nonprofit world’s forced dependence on non-professionals in its work.

“Who would stay on the plane?” Poulin asked. “But when it’s poor people we say, ‘Let’s have volunteers do it.'”

The IRC is one of two refugee resettlement agencies in Salt Lake County and works to facilitate the transition of refugees into a foreign society. Locating the right people and the money with which to pay them is a problem that agencies like Poulin’s confront regularly. But progress can sometimes come in small steps.

One step came in February 2008 when Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered the creation of theRefugee Services Office within the Department of Workforce Services. He ordered the appropriation of $200,000 to assist refugee resettlement efforts. Organizations like the IRC tend to rely primarily on the federal government to support their operations. Huntsman’s executive order marked the first time that state money has gone specifically to the aid of local refugees.

The unprecedented allocation is significant but only in a symbolic way, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office. Brown said the $200,000 represents less than 10 percent of the funding his office receives from the federal government, but it’s a start.

“It shows that the state is willing to invest money,” he said, but “we need a lot more money.”

The Refugee Services Office acts as a coordinator among various agencies and organizations, like the IRC. The office is responsible for routing federal funds to the groups. It also pays the salaries of a handful of social workers at the IRC.

The federal government has agreements with the IRC and nine other national nonprofit organizations to resettle refugees across the country. When a refugee comes into the care of a resettlement agency, the agency receives $425 of direct assistance for that person. An additional $425 is also given to pay for things like office space, utility bills and caseworkers’ salaries, at the organization’s discretion. But, much of the administrative funds end up being used as direct assistance

“$425 doesn’t go very far,” Poulin said. “We face a choice between paying [refugees’] rent or paying staff.”

It’s a difficult choice, Poulin said. According to the IRC’s 2007 financial statement, 90 percent of the funds it received were used in program services — relief, resettlement and others. Seven percent of the funds were for administrative costs. No specific guidelines exist to mandate how the federal money is used, but the IRC provides cash assistance and purchases goods and services on the refugees’ behalf. It creates the dilemma of trying to help more people or giving overworked staff pay raises.

“The problem,” Poulin said, “is that we can’t close our doors and we don’t want to.”

When they arrive in Salt Lake City, refugees who are eligible can enroll in support programs like Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, programs available to the general public. Those who do not qualify can receive cash and medical assistance from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for up to eight months. However, after the eight-month period is up, they may only receive benefits based on eligibility. That means they could receive nothing.

To complicate matters further, the IRC’s charter only allows enough funding for caseworkers to work with refugees for six months before responsibility for that person is shifted to secondary organization, according to Poulin. This, he said, is where many refugees fall through the cracks.

Keeping refugees out of the cracks, then, is a problem of time and money — six months to help people who come from a foreign country, who may speak little or no English and who often have no family ties on the continent, much less Salt Lake City, become self-reliant.

“It’s not even six months in reality,” Brown said, noting that caseworkers are often overwhelmed by the number of people with whom they work. The IRC resettled 546 refugees in Salt Lake City during the 2007 fiscal year with over one-third arriving in September alone.

“One of the founding principles of the refugee program is, early as possible, self-sufficiency,” Brown said. It is a good idea in theory but is not always the best for the refugee, he said.

“When people come in, there’s a lot of pressure to put them into any kind of job as fast as you can do it,” Brown said.

However, it is difficult to focus on helping people be successful in a job when they are still grappling with a completely foreign environment. Poulin described a group of Burmese who were afraid to leave their homes in Salt Lake City homes after spending years in refugee camps in Thailand, not allowed to wander more than a few hundred yards from their compound. Volunteers and caseworkers struggled to help people feel comfortable doing every day tasks like going to the grocery store, riding public transportation and finding their way to and from school.

Working in such sensitive circumstances requires having people with the language capacity and professional training to do the job well, Poulin said. The IRC maintains a workforce of between 50 and 60 volunteers and a handful of paid employees, Poulin said. They cannot handle many more than this and still provide adequate support to the volunteers. What are needed, he said, are professionals.

“We’re trying to build our capacity to serve but we don’t want to just throw volunteers at refugees,” Poulin said.

The Refugee Services Office is working with resettlement organizations to build a trained volunteer network to assist in case management. It is working to secure additional funding for caseworkers’ salaries.  Both the IRC and the Refugee Services Office are working to extend the time they work with refugees from six months to 24 months, hopefully guiding more people to what Poulin calls the IRC’s ultimate goal: a person’s becoming a citizen of the United States.

“It’s going to be huge when we pull it off,” Brown said.