More Somali refugee families homeless in Minneapolis

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Fadumo Isse sat with three other Somali refugee women in the hallway of a homeless shelter in north Minneapolis with her eyes welling up with tears as she told her story of the first six months of her life in the United States.

Isse arrived in the United States in late April, hoping to live a contented life: an illusion people in third-world and developing countries have about America, she recalled.

After six months in the United States, Isse has yet to live that lifestyle. She lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Mary’s Place — a homeless shelter in north Minneapolis — with her daughter.

She is one of 39 homeless Somali families in the shelter, who, like Isse, have recently come from a refugee camp in Ethiopia. Isse lived there for more than 20 years.

The number of Somali families living in Mary’s Place has drastically increased in the past nine months, said Mary Jo Copeland, founder and director of Sharing & Caring Hands and Mary’s Place.

Six Somali families lived in Mary’s Place about a year ago. Before that, there had not been a homeless Somali family in the shelter, which was opened 16 years ago.

“They started coming just over a year ago. I’ve no explanation for it,” Copeland said. “They’re suffering. I can’t blame them. And I help them with what I can.”

Isse said her new life in America is full of stress and deprivation, blaming it on the language barrier.

“When I was in Ethiopia, people told me that anything is possible in the U.S.,” Isse said speaking in Somali. “Now, I find out that life in this country is tough, especially when you can’t speak English.”

Love for Minnesota

When these families first came to America, most of them settled in other states, including New York and Texas, with government agencies and organizations offering them financial assistance for a maximum of eight months until they were able to stand on their feet.

Isse and Shamis Obsiye, a 38-year-old mother of five children, found they needed more than just housing and money. They needed Somali people.

When Obsiye arrived in the country two years ago, she settled in Dallas, Taxes, where she lived in subsidized housing with four bedrooms.

But two months later, Obsiye moved into a homeless shelter, the Francis Drake Hotel, in downtown Minneapolis.

“I don’t mind living in the frigid weather of Minnesota as long as I get to see Somalis everywhere,” she said.

An estimated 80,000 Somali people live in Minnesota, making the state a home to the largest Somali population in the country, with two malls in south Minneapolis serving them as a social and cultural hub.

Isse settled in Syracuse, NY, when she first arrived in the United States in late April. She lived there for two months before she moved into Mary’s Place in August.

“I don’t speak English. I couldn’t make an appointment with the doctor. I couldn’t go to the store for shopping because I don’t have a car and there wasn’t anyone to help me with rides,” Isse said. “But in Minnesota, there’re always people [Somalis] to help.”

Transitional resettlement benefits for refugees

The federal government provides transitional resettlement benefits to new refugees through private agencies, who contract with the Department of State, according to Energy of a Nation: Immigration Resources.

“Certain refugees are entitled to a special program of Refugee Cash and Medical Assistance, provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and administered by the state in which the refugee resides,” according to a fact sheet published by the Advocates for Human Rights.

However, Isse and Obsiye said, rental houses around safe neighborhood are very expensive, and the cash assistance is just not enough.

“I can only afford to pay for a subsidized housing,” Isse said.  

Low-income housing hard to find

With the increasing economic and foreclosure crisis, many Americans have turned to public and subsidized housing programs. At present 6,300 applicants are on the waiting list for the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority’s high-rise buildings; another 11,700 are on its Section-8 Housing Choice Vouchers — a federal program created to provide low-income families with safe and affordable housing — waiting list.  

“This is a very difficult time for low-income persons and families as evidenced by our long waiting list,” MPHA Director of Policy and Special Initiatives Bob Boyd said. “We ache for the many homeless families and vulnerable persons who desperately need housing.”

It may take years for Isse to find public housing. “This means I’ve got to work with them until they find housing,” Copeland said.

Mary’s Place contains 92 fully-furnished apartment units and houses hundreds of other homeless families, including African-Americans, Native Americans, and Ethiopians.