Salt Lake County faces refugee-housing crisis

by MATT BERGSTROM

At the end of 2007, Salt Lake County Community Resources and Development commissioned a report on the housing situation for refugees within the county. The report, published in December 2007 by Wikstrom Economic and Planning Consultants Inc., revealed a dire situation.

According to the report, Salt Lake is what is known as a “highly-impacted community.” When compared to other counties of relatively similar size, Salt Lake has resettled a disproportionately large share of refugees.

The report gives a number of reasons for this discrepancy. Refugees tend to be very successful here due to Salt Lake’s constantly expanding job market. Simply put, more jobs means the county needs more people to fill them.

Perhaps the main reason is the family-friendly atmosphere of the city. Many refugees who come to the U.S. have large families, of which Salt Lake is traditionally more accepting. Almost one-fourth of the families resettled in Salt Lake in 2007 had 5 or more people in them; with some having as many as 11.

Resettling large families in Salt Lake also leads to large numbers of secondary resettlements. This is when a person, or group of people, decides to relocate to a city to be closer to family after having already been resettled in another part of the country.

But with a steadily growing job market and a near-constant stream of new residents the vacancy rates in apartments in Salt Lake is low. And when vacancy rates are low, rent tends to go up. This is especially true of larger units that are needed to house the larger families being drawn here.

According to the Wikstrom report, an annual income of more than $24,000 per year is required to afford an average priced, one-bedroom apartment in Salt Lake. The average refugee works a minimum wage job and earns about half that amount. This means multiple earners are needed in the home just to afford the cheapest possible option.

Adaptation to apartment life is another housing problem facing refugees. Many who come to the U.S. are coming from refugee camps in Africa or Asia, and often have never lived anywhere else. These camps are not always equipped with the modern conveniences of a Salt Lake apartment.

“Sometimes you have to teach people how to use a light switch,” said Patrick Poulin, resettlement director for the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake. He and his caseworkers assist refugees assimilating to their new surroundings.

“Imagine having to teach someone that, then have to teach them about a lease, or paying utilities,” he said.

This concern resonates with other refugee care organizations. At a recent refugee service provider network meeting, held by the Utah Department of Workforce Services, housing problems ranging from cooking in apartments with open flames to a bedbug infestation were discussed.

Situations like these make landlords wary of allowing other refugees to rent their units in the future.

Fortunately, local government has not turned a blind eye to the situation. Early in 2008, the Department of Workforce Services opened the Refugee Services Office. It was created with the intent of coordinating the many agencies and nonprofit organizations that work to help refugees in and around Salt Lake.

Gerald Brown, the director of the Refugee Services Office, feels the number of refugees coming to Salt Lake is not going to slow down any time soon. “People will not stop coming here as long as they can get here what they can’t get there,” Brown said.

Salt Lake City has also begun to explore other solutions for the housing crisis. In January 2008, just after the Wikstrom report was released, the Community Resources and Development division of the Utah Department of Human Services assembled a committee to find a solution. The committee, comprised of refugee service caregivers and local business owners, came up with an idea to build temporary housing specifically designed for recently resettled refugees.

The facility, which is being referred to as “welcome housing,” would not only be a place for refugees to live for the first year or two in America, but would also provide onsite casework assistance with a goal of eventual acculturation. This staff would include people to help teach refugees the basics of apartment living in a safe atmosphere where they can develop these skills before having to find permanent housing on their own.

The projected 50-unit project is still far from fruition, said Dan Lofgren, president and CEO of Cowboy Partners, a real estate development and property management company based in Holladay. Lofgren is also a member of the state housing committee.

Until somebody steps up with funding for the project, he said it would never be anything more than an idea. But even money won’t permanently fix the problem.

“There aren’t resources available to build our way out of this,” he said.

The Wikstrom report came to a similar conclusion. According to the report, there needs to be better training to teach refugees good renter practices. Availability of housing is not a panacea for the rest of a refugee’s life as a U.S. resident.

Diversity is complicated for refugees in Utah

by BRADY LEAVITT

In a state that is 93 percent white, Gerald Brown represents diversity.

Brown is white. He wears bow ties and peers through round-rimmed glasses. When asked if he speaks foreign languages, he says, “Only Southern.” When asked what his epitaph might read, he says, “A Holy Man.” And when asked if refugee caseworkers are tough, he says without hesitation, “Shit.”

Brown, 57, is the director of the Refugee Services Office in the Utah Department of Workforce Services. He works as a sort of traffic cop at the intersection of politics and nonprofit groups, coordinating efforts to help refugees integrate into Utah’s communities and culture.

Brown became director of the Refugee Services Office in February 2008 after Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. ordered its creation. Huntsman and the state legislature appropriated $200,000 to fund the office, the first time state money has been provided specifically for refugees. The sum is small, Brown said, less than 10 percent of the money he receives from the federal government. However, it as a sign that the state is willing to invest in refugees, he said.

“I need Huntsman for another term,” Brown said, referring to the upcoming elections. “He gets it.”

A self-described “lefty activist type,” Brown wants democratic Sen. Barack Obama to be elected president in November. He figures that with a Democratic president, Republican Gov. Huntsman will be re-elected in Utah and not called to a cabinet position in Washington.

Before Gov. Huntsman’s executive order, the Refugee Services Office consisted of “one guy and a cubicle,” Brown said. Now the office has six employees and one volunteer coordinator.

While he enjoys working in Utah, Brown’s fondness for the state and its governor only goes so far. He expressed frustration with the organizational difficulties of his job. One of his office’s goals is to build a network of trained volunteers to assist caseworkers. But, he said, the bureaucracy is slowing it down.

“Do we have trained volunteers on the ground yet? Nope. Because we’re still meeting,” Brown said.

Brown began his work in the field of refugee services assisting Cambodians at a YMCA in Houston in 1981. It was his first-hand experience that inspired him to be an advocate and an activist. The most effective activists, he said, are those who have had similar exposure to diverse populations.

Brown both praises and criticizes Utah in this respect. He accuses many Utahns as being insular and in many cases ignorant when compared with other groups of people he has worked with.

Peter Robson works as an interpreter for refugees at the Asian Association of Utah. He said that he included his work experience at a refugee resettlement agency on his resume. As he interviewed for jobs this past summer, many employers would ask him about it.

“These were well-informed people, but they were surprised that there were real refugees in Salt Lake,” Robson said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Utah’s population in 2006 was identified as 93.5 percent white and only 5.1 percent black, Asian, Native American or Pacific Islander.

Robson, 23, is a native Utahn. Growing up in his east Salt Lake City neighborhood he was separated, and not just from the refugee community, he said.

“It’s easy to insulate yourself and separate yourself from anyone who is less-privileged,” Robson said.

Robson said his experiences working with the refugee community have changed his underlying career goals – salary and other considerations are no longer as important as the satisfaction that comes from helping people.

Robson is similar to many people that Brown knows in Utah. Brown said he is baffled by how simultaneously sheltered and eager the volunteers he finds here are.

“Utah County is the volunteer capital of the U.S.,” Brown said, “It’s like the perfect job.”

Brown said that diversity is edifying and that people need to begin to realize that the world is getting smaller and people are more reliant upon each other than ever.

While Brown may feel that Utah is not a hub of diversity, he maintains that Utah is the “Wild West for resettlement work,” meaning that he feels so much is possible because people and organizations are so willing to help. And despite his criticism insularity, Brown said that one of the reasons it is so easy to work with people in Utah is that they are conservative and relatively nondiverse. ”

They have no complicated experiences,” he said, “and people seem generally nice.” Brown epitomizes in many ways the unique and unlikely diversity of Utah.

Diversity, Brown said, is a two-way street – a street on which he directs the traffic.

And doing so, Brown said, “I have had the privilege to get to know the world.”

Gerald Brown: Fighting for those who cannot fight back

by REED NELSON

The man is happier than any man should rightfully be for a 7:30 a.m. meeting, but in his line of work, this is the least stressful part of his day. Donned in a bow tie, thick-rimmed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses, and topsiders, and for a man in his position, he looks the part.

He deals with grants (or lack thereof), crime (both with clients and against), family issues (his and his clients), resettlements, and the acclimation of oppressed people in a foreign land.

His name is Gerald Brown, 57, and for the better part of three decades, he has been working with refugees in locations such as New York City and Houston before arriving in Salt Lake City in 2002.

Now, as the Director of Refugee Services, in the Utah Department of Workforce Services, Brown is under constant pressure from the weight of two separate worlds. He must keep his budget in line, because he is a government employee. And he must also keep the refugees he helps happy, healthy and in tune, because he knows they are the ones who can get lost in the shuffle.

“We provide eight months of Medical service and cash assistance for those who qualify,” Brown said with a hint of empathy, ” the problem with Utah is a lot of time there is no one to look after them after that.”

Brown began his work with refugees in Houston for four years, then continued his work in the melting pot that is New York City. He understands that it was a good place, if not the most mundane, to earn his stripes. He was thrown into the middle of the daily struggle that is resettlement with a group of Cambodian refugees.

“Once I began to learn to communicate with them I could plant a seed,” Brown said, “and once the seed is planted, it can be enforced to the nth degree.”

He ran a resettlement house for 10 years in New York, and that led him to a job as a political asylum officer in Kansas in 1998. (Political asylum differs from refugee status, only because asylum deals exclusively with political conflict and oppression. A refugee is oppressed from any and all angles.)

After Kansas, Brown moved to Salt Lake to bolster the resettlement program, before ending up with the Utah Department of Workforce Services

“When I came here, we had one guy in a cubicle, now we have six,” Brown said with a grin. And his grin is genuine, because when he works with such a limited, but demanding, clientele, he needs all the sure handed help he can get.

Now he has a volunteer training program in place, and help, at least with a face, has arrived. His caseworkers are now fully trained, and now they can manage each responsibly and compassionately. The training program is essential, Brown said, especially when handling home visits with refugees.

“Volunteers untrained can cause more trouble they help most of the time,” Brown said. Which is why his case workers are equipped not only to handle face to face interaction with their clients, but the behind the scenes business as well.

Those volunteers have now taken on a heavy load of individual cases. The case management process requires the caseworkers to be fully versed in the refugees’ rights; otherwise a lot of necessary services are not readily available. It is Brown’s job to make sure his workers can access those services.

Brown understands that he is fighting an uphill battle, but the battle far from over. He has reached members of the Salt Lake community indirectly, which is a testament to his influence. Some do not even know who to see when they first arrive.

“My family never knew where to go, and I am still the only English speaking member of my family,” said Sean Keranovic, a Salt Lake Community College student originally from Prijedor, Bosnia. “Our neighbors got in touch with a case worker back in 2002, and their transition has been made much easier. No late bills, no missed school, and very little confusion.”

So while Brown deals with his 11-year-old son (“He wants to be a journalist,” Brown said with a chuckle) and his family life, he is always making sure that no case is left untouched.

Society has the propensity to complicate things, and complication can often bury the unprepared. Gerald Brown deals with people who have had few choices in life, and makes sure they don’t slip all the way through the cracks. And despite the long hours, he still manages to keep a broad smile on his face.

“Man, I’ve had the privilege to know the world,” Brown said, with the same smile adorning his face, directed more to himself than anyone in particular. “To learn [about people from other countries] is like another college degree free of charge. Cool.”

Refugee caseworkers work long hours in Salt Lake City

by MICHAEL OLSON

Originally from Rwanda, Africa, Valentine Mukundente and her parents were relocated to Salt Lake City as refugees. Before they came to America, however, Mukundente and her family were sent to a refugee camp in Zambia where she spent her high school years. In Zambia, Mukundente worked as a translator for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees while her family waited to be relocated to America. She had learned French and Swahili as a child in Rwanda and English while in high school.

Mukundente is a resettlement caseworker at the International Rescue Committee in Salt Lake City. She has worked there for more than a year.

“I love working with refugees because I used to be one,” said Mukundente. Armed with experience as a refugee she is able to keep from getting burned out from the extreme demands on her time as a caseworker. Instead, she finds it easy to relate to the refugees she helps because she was a refugee herself.

Life as a refugee caseworker is not easy on family life. Mukundente recently married a man she knew from Rwanda. He came here as a refugee and now they have a 6-month-old baby boy.

“It’s difficult because we don’t have time to go home,” Mukundente said about their schedules. Sometimes they have to pick up a refugee family from the Salt Lake International Airport in the middle of the night.

Caseworkers take them to their new house and show them how to use the stove and other appliances. This is the first time most Africans and Burmese have seen a stove or a light switch, Mukundente said.

Sometimes refugees will visit the IRC’s downtown office on 400 South to ask questions or for help reading their mail, often just as Mukundente is on her way out the door to go home to her family. But she gladly stays late to help them. After all, she used to be a refugee herself.

Seven caseworkers are currently employed at the IRC. Mukundente is responsible for 30 cases, but some caseworkers handle as many as 70 cases at a time.

“That’s too much,” she said. If she were to focus on one of her 30 cases a day, it would take a month to get through them all.

A case may consist of a single refugee, or it could be an entire family, some with as many as 11 members.

Caseworkers at the Asian Association of Utah are just as busy. Lina Smith, the director of Utah Refugee Employment and the Community Center at the Asian Association, supervises six caseworkers, who handle between 50 and 70 cases each.

Smith has been with the Asian Association for eight years. Five of the six caseworkers she employs are currently or were at one time refugees.

“I find the refugees don’t get as burned out,” Smith said. “They have been through what the people in their cases are going through.” That motivates them to get the refugees through the difficult process of adjusting to life in Utah.

Of all the places for refugees to be resettled, Utah is one of the best locations in the nation, said Gerald Brown, director of the Refugee Services Office of the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

“People here tend to be willing to help,” Brown said. Some social workers have a tendency to become jaded, but that seems to happen less in Utah.

Brown said that the perfect workload would be 20 cases for every caseworker. Because of the shortage of caseworkers it is very important that they set boundaries to avoid getting burned out.

For example, caseworkers decide whether to give out their personal contact information.

“I have some caseworkers that give out their cell phone numbers and then they have to choose whether to answer it or not,” Smith said.

The IRC’s Mukundente usually chooses not to give out her cell phone number, but some refugees still find it out from friends who know their number.

When they call they usually just have a question that can be taken care of later. Mukundente asks the refugee if it can wait until during work hours when they can talk about it. If it is a genuine emergency, such as when a child falls and breaks his arm, Mukundente directs the family to call 911 or a person at the IRC who handles emergency situations and can translate for the refugees.

“We tell them when they first get here to call 911 in an emergency, but they forget,” Mukundente said. “The first person on their minds is their caseworker.”

Despite the stress and the long hours, Mukundente loves her job.

“People have something in their blood, something they like to do,” she said. “This is not a job you do for money. You do it because you love it.”

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.