This article is part of the Sacred-Public Partnerships series, published in collaboration with Sacred Sector, an initiative of the Center for Public Justice. The series explores the ways in which faith-based organizations – the sacred sector – and government partner for good. Sacred-Public Partnerships focuses specifically on the intersection of the sacred sector, religious freedom, and government-administered social safety net programs and explores why partnership between government and the sacred sector is essential to the success of social services in the United States.
BY ASHLEY FISHER
Imagine having to pack up what few personal belongings you could carry and leaving behind all that you’ve ever known. Imagine that this happened at a moment’s notice; not out of a personal choice, but out of fear for one’s safety. This is the reality for the 25.9 million people in the world that are classified as refugees. World Relief defines a refugee as, “Someone who has fled one’s home country and cannot return because of a well-founded fear of persecution based on religion, race, nationality, political opinion or membership in a particular social group.” While millions hold the title of refugee, not every refugee is given the opportunity to resettle in another country. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in 2018 there were 20.4 million refugees of concern, but fewer than one percent were submitted for resettlement. For refugees that do have the opportunity resettle, it can be the start of a long and difficult journey.
A crucial aspect of a refugee’s resettlement is being able to move into a home that they are able to call their own. After the taxing journey of moving to a foreign place, it is vital to have a stable home in which a family’s sense of normalcy can begin to be reestablished.
Not only can a stable living arrangement provide a refugee with emotional and mental stability, but having a permanent address to put on documents and forms is important. For example, a family is not able to enroll their children in school until proof of residency in the school district is established. It is also difficult to register and obtain a state identification until a permanent address can be provided. Finding housing can be a hurdle that, when crossed, finally allows a refugee to start to feel established and settled in the community.
The journey towards stable housing is not simple. Things like lack of credit or rental history can delay or even put a halt to a refugee’s housing application. In 2018, approximately 22,500 refugees were resettled in the United States. In a country where even those with stable jobs and a steady income struggle to find affordable housing options, the housing search for a refugee can seem nearly impossible.
According to Business Insider, the median rent for a one bedroom apartment in the United States increased four percent in June 2018 compared to the year before. In some cities rental prices rose 10-15 percent in 2018. A rise in rental prices is difficult for any household, but can be devastating for someone just starting out in a new country.
Language barriers can also create difficulties for a refugee family seeking housing. In an article published in Refugees Deeply in 2017, Isabel Vazquez highlighted the struggle of refugees searching for housing in an increasingly expensive rental market.Vazquez tells the story of a woman that received an eviction notice from her apartment, but was unable to fully understand what the document said because she didn’t speak English. The woman had to turn to the assistance of other members of her community who could interpret the letter for her. Lease agreements and notices from an apartment office can be daunting for someone who is learning English in a new country.
A SACRED-PUBLIC RESPONSE
Due to the complexity of the issue, the refugee housing crisis will not be solved by a “one size fits all” approach. It requires the contributions and partnerships of many sectors of society.
Towards the end of each fiscal year, the president sets a ceiling for how many refugees will be allowed into the United States in the following fiscal year. This determination is based off of international humanitarian concern and national interest. While the United States government sets the limit for how many refugees will be allowed to enter into the country, it would be impossible for the U.S. government to adequately assist in the resettlement of each and every refugee that comes to America.
As a result, the government relies upon resettlement agencies, many of which are nonprofits and faith-based organizations. Nine resettlement agencies participate in a cooperative agreement with the State Department to take part in the Reception and Placement (R&P) program. Under this agreement, these nine agencies agree to provide services like housing, furniture, cultural orientation, and employment services. Six of the nine resettlement agencies in the United States are faith-based organizations, including Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Lutheran Community Services Northwest and World Relief. The faith principles that these organizations were founded on does not mean that they can only serve clients that share this same belief, but allows for these organizations to put their faith into action and foster relationships with others that might not share their faith.
This partnership in the resettlement process reflects public justice principles that advocate for unique institutional roles and responsibilities. Government has the scale, breadth, and funding to resettle refugees in the United States in a way that the nonprofit sector on its own would not be able to accomplish. And yet, once in the country, the physical, mental and spiritual needs of refugees are complex and nuanced. Faith-based organizations — the sacred sector — are often actively involved in resettlement process and are able to provide holistic and personalized services to refugee families in a way that government would be unable to do.
SACRED-PUBLIC PARTNERSHIPS AND HOUSING
One of the key aspects of the cooperative agreement in the R&P program is housing assistance. Typically the search for housing begins before the family sets foot on U.S. soil. Often an application and holding fee is submitted a day or two before the scheduled date of arrival. Once the apartment is acquired, the resettlement agency assists in interpretation, if necessary, for the signing of the lease. After the lease is signed the agency provides items for the apartment including furniture, appliances, cleaning supplies, and toiletries.
But even after a refugee secures housing and the formal resettlement process is complete, needs arise. Sacred sector organizations often serve refugee families as they encounter challenges. For example, Muslim Housing Services (MHS), a faith-based organization in King County, Washington, serves several populations, including refugees, in meeting housing-related needs. Created in 1999, Muslim Housing Services saw a growing need for assistance from homeless and low-income families in King County. MHS has a wide range of programs that they offer, from case management to a youth soccer program. In regards to housing, MHS offers homelessness prevention, rapid re-housing, and transitional housing. This can look like offering short term rental assistance to prevent someone from becoming homeless, moving homeless clients into an apartment, or moving a homeless family into apartment units managed by MHS for temporary housing offered at a very affordable rate. MHS receives government funding and is an example of a sacred-public partnership that contributes to ensuring that refugee families are supported as they resettle in a new country.
Some sacred sector and nonprofit organizations also partner with for-profit companies to assist refugees. Oftentimes families need a temporary place to stay while they wait for their new apartment to be ready for them. An individual can decide to partner with a resettlement agency in their area and become a volunteer host home, opening some extra space that one might have for a refugee to stay in for free while an apartment is being prepared. Popular vacation rental company Airbnb is making this even more accessible with their Open Homes program. This program allows for Airbnb landlords to sign up to partner with an agency and open up their Airbnb rental to a new refugee or asylum seeker that is need of transitional housing. Some of the resettlement agencies that participate in this program include International Rescue Committee, Church World Service, Refugees Welcome International, and Solidarity Now.
Practicing hospitality and welcoming resettled refugee families in our communities is a shared responsibility. When it comes to supporting refugee families and assisting with housing, the scope of need is too large for any one institution to address. For that reason, it’s essential that government continue to partner with faith-based organizations which are able to provide particularized and culturally competent services to refugees. Faith-based organizations and other private sector organizations that are invested in the communities are able to build lasting relationships with the individuals and families that they are serving. Building these types of connections can mean so much during such a chaotic and transitional time in a refugee’s life.
Ashley Fisher is a graduate of Vanguard University and holds a degree in History and Political Science. She is currently the Housing Coordinator at World Relief Seattle.
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