Homeless immigrants discuss their plight at forum

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For more than a year, leaders have sought ways to resolve the situation of several Hmong families, particularly new arrivals from the Thai refugee camps at Wat Tham Krabok, that were welcomed over the past year at Mary’s Place, Sharing and Caring Hands, in Minneapolis.

Ilean Her, executive director of the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans, a state agency that advises policymakers on community issues, moderated the event. She said this was an opportunity to hear the stories from the people themselves.

It was an emotional afternoon as one tenant after another came forward to tell of how they would like nothing better than to be independent, but that the challenges they have with irregular employment that affects their status with the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP), and the Diversionary Work program, the state’s welfare benefits reform program for low-income families with children.

The lack of support and affordable housing has forced them into shelters. The tenants and their advocates argued that ESL/ELL and job training programs are more essential for new immigrants, and that in the interest of the goal of achieving economic self-sufficiency, the state should not place the same limitations on them as they work to make themselves more employable.

Residents explained their experiences. Many shared the common sentiment that they did not come to America thinking that it would be easy, but that the challenges they face now are more difficult than they could have imagined. The stress has affected the health of many in the group.

Charlotte Kinzley, the Hmong tenant advocate at Mary’s Place, said that of the 59 families that came to Mary’s Place there are 29 left. This may appear to be a positive step, but she noted that only four families have moved into some form of subsidized housing. Most of them moved into two-bedroom apartment units, regardless of family size, and their incomes are very minimal.

“They are barely making it,” said Kinzley, expressing concern about their fate in the winter when utilities costs will soar, or with any other financial hardship.

“Even though many have moved out, I don’t think that this is a problem that we can afford to ignore,” she added.

The remaining families at Mary’s Place have family members with physical and mental disabilities, are single parents or have experienced other challenges in their lives.

“I urge anyone who can do anything to please help,” she added. “The families want to be self-sufficient and they need more assistance than they are getting.”

Mary’s Place is a 92-unit transitional housing complex in Minneapolis. It is meant as temporary support, and though the Hmong have been welcomed in their long-term stay, the facility staff have worked nonstop as tenant advocates to speak with civic and nonprofit leaders to find a solution.

Family sponsors were able to support the nearly 7,000 people who came to Minnesota. The number of Hmong at Mary’s Place is small by comparison, and their presence at a shelter has brought scorn from some circles that see this as bringing shame on the community.

“This is not our intent; this is our reality,” said one tenant.

“We are not lazy or looking for free ride,” said another tenant.

“Despite what you may have heard, these people were not living nicely with their sponsors or in apartments that they could afford,” said Kinzley. “They came to us out of desperation and many times it was the sponsors themselves who brought them to us, not out of laziness or lack of concern, but just out of an inability to be able to afford to help another family.”

The area public housing programs are not only overburdened with long waiting lists, many of the Hmong found they no longer qualified for subsidized housing after they went to the shelter. Applicants are required to show that they have been paying a disproportionate amount of their income on rent for previous months, something that someone in a shelter cannot provide.

Mary’s Place has helped stabilize families. Most of the children are attending Jordon Park Elementary, Hmong Academy, or the New Millennium Academy. The kids have after-school support, and then return to Mary’s Place, where volunteers and staff continue teaching ESL and help them catch up on their homework.

Advocates noted that the requested revisions in the Minnesota Family Investment Program (MFIP) were not passed in the last legislative session. The new Hmong must abide by rules that emphasize employment, searching for employment, or training for employment as do English speaking, mainstream applicants. They find the rules contradictory and confusing and want changes to allow more time to maintain a family as they learn English.

Ilean Her explained that the Council worked on a refugee exemption bill for Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. It passed the Senate, but did not get by the House or the Governor’s office last session.

“We are trying to get more support for the effort,” said Her.

As the city and county wait for federal support with affordable housing, more can be done to help homeowners make the costly renovations to meet Section 8 requirements and make affordable housing available.

Sarah Hernandez, a program officer at the McKnight Foundation, said her role is merely to encourage connections and dialogue. She helped to convene the meeting in the interest of getting the people who are affected by these issues together with the people who can make a difference.

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