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Seeking refuge: Displaced Utah families struggle to find housing
Osman Aden, a former refugee from Kenya, moves his family's belongings Saturday out of the apartment complex that had been his home.
By Lucinda Dillon Kinkead and Dennis Romboy
Utah, July 29, 2007 - Abdio Mohammed moved out of her home Saturday. The 14-year-old moved away from her friends, away from her grandma a few doors down and away from the uncle who helped her family navigate this new country a world away from the African land where she was born.
"We wanted to stay here," the girl said. "But everybody has to move."
Abdio, her parents and her little brother and sister are part of a wave of tenants being displaced from an apartment complex at 1700 South and Redwood Road because of higher rents, "nonrenewable" leases and policy changes under new ownership at the property known as the Hartland.
"This is a crisis," said Merrie Lee, who supervises volunteers who address the complicated needs of residents there.
The property, recently renamed the Seasons at Pebble Creek due to an ownership change, is not your average apartment complex — and many say upheaval on these grounds threatens the stability and livelihood of a population with a traumatic history that is fragile enough already.
The issue started last spring as a simple property ownership transition.
In March, a new owner — Mark Hamilton of San Francisco — increased the monthly rent by $50 to $200. Hamilton's partnership also said Section 8 vouchers, which subsidize rent, would no longer be accepted. After lobbying by concerned groups, the owners and housing authorities were able to reach an agreement that vouchers from current residents would be accepted.
In addition, approximately 40 percent of Hartland residents were supported by a federal rental assistance program that ends in August. There is no replacement program.
In the end, as many as 175 families may be displaced. Up to 80 families are already gone. Another 60-65 families will be receiving non-renewal notices from now until the end of August, which means they all must move. In other cases, families were given a chance to renew leases, but only for 10 months. Federal low-income housing subsidies require a one-year contract.
"Regardless of the exact reason, the impact has been the same," Lee said. "It's just tragic."
Multiple phone calls to new managers of the complex this past week were not returned.
This past week, Lee took five residents around looking for housing because, she said, "they are headed for the homeless shelters. It's that critical. We hope we can at least save them from homelessness."
To understand the scope of this displacement, one has to understand the complexion of the apartments' residents.
To an outsider, the taupe complex at the corner of 1700 South and Redwood Road seems a scrappy, nondescript stopping place for low-rent tenants.
But look closer.
On one balcony, a banner announces the Hartland Partnership Center. Another sign, not far from where a cluster of barefoot children boot a soccer ball, is for the Utah Federation of Youth center. And on the other side of the 300-unit property is a special classroom for the federal Head Start program.
For years, the collection of apartments has been much more than a living space for its residents. The complex is home to more than 1,000 adults and children from all over the world, including such places as Somalia, Peru, Sudan, Central and Eastern Europe and Mexico, as well as the United States. More than 75 percent of the residents are non-native English speakers.
Hartland has been a resettlement site for the two primary refugee agencies in Salt Lake City. As a result, some of the units had been subsidized for low-income residents.
And while the new management isn't talking, and none of the tenants' advocates can get a straight answer about who got asked to move and why, the majority of families moving are refugees.
Children and some of their parents congregate at the Seasons at Pebble Creek apartments.
This fact creates the greatest consternation among advocates for this population.
The new management told the families they didn't choose to allow them to renew their leases, and that makes Lee mad.
"I'm just hard-pressed to find any excuse for someone to do this to another human being," she said. Lee understands that property owners want to make money, fix up their property. "But don't make people who have been in crisis their whole life go back on the streets."
"Refugees, when they come here, they struggle," said Aden Batar, director of immigration and refugee resettlement for Catholic Community Services.
"Some take a long time before they can be successfully integrated into this community," Batar said. "They face a lot of barriers ... and they need help. In order for them to go to work, they need some skills, and many are skills we take for granted."
A collection of agencies recognized the diverse needs and population at this apartment complex and took action.
A few years ago, a group called the University Neighborhood Partners (UNP) gathered teams of University of Utah faculty, students and other organizations to open a special center at Hartland. The center offered English and life skills classes and matched volunteers with families to provide transportation to work or day care, language translation, homebuyer education, youth leadership, employment skills and legal and health-care education.
In February, University of Utah President Michael Young offered congratulations at a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Hartland's new Head Start Center and preschool.
"This is an extraordinary example of the impact that results when the university and community work together," he said.
Somali refugee Asiya Mahanadeni has until the end of September to move out of the Seasons at Pebble Creek apartment complex.
Now members of the UNP are scrambling to find help for families in what has been described as a crisis at the complex.
"We are really in a full court press to find help," said Rosemarie Hunter, UNP's director.
A large population of Somali Bantu refugees lives at the complex. And the experience of the average Utahn is certainly a world away from that of Osman Aden, who came to the United States four years ago from a Kenyan refugee camp with his wife and two children.
A refugee resettlement agency initially assigned Aden's family to Atlanta, but he couldn't find work there. He had relatives in Salt Lake City, so he moved his family across the country two years ago. He found the Hartland apartments with help from his brother-in-law and got a job at the Grand America hotel as a dishwasher. He makes $6.50 an hour.
His teenage daughter translates the best she can for her mom and dad.
Uprooting a family is one thing. To uproot a refugee family — especially one from the war-torn areas of Africa — is another much more daunting scenario, say the caseworkers and volunteers helping them adjust to Western life.
Aden's son, Noor, is moving away from the Head Start preschool he has attended and from within the Riley and Mountain View elementary school boundaries, where teachers, principals and volunteers understand and support the needs of refugee children like Noor and Abdio.
Refugee families like Aden's are not immigrants. They are not undocumented workers. They are men, women and children forced from their homes because of their religion, politics, social group, nationality or race.
Nearly 80 percent are women and children. All come with the blessing and the approval of the U.S. State Department and the Immigration and Naturalization Service.
Arbay Musa, right, a friend of the Osman Aden family, helps them move out of their apartment as children Kerry Mohamed, Hussen Mberwa and Zahara Adow wait on a bed.
During the past several years, they have been primarily Africans who have lived for years in refugee camps across the borders from dictators and the plague of civil war in their home countries. About 16,000 refugees have come to Utah through official channels, said Norman Nakamura, Utah state coordinator for refugee resettlement. But that figure does not account for refugees who moved in from other states.
About 450 Somali Bantus were finally resettled in Utah, a higher number than was originally projected.
Lee uses careful language to describe the challenges faced by some refugees.
She calls them "pre-literate" and "pre-industrial."
"It's incomprehensible for us," she said. "I believe it will take a generation of intensive resources and community to get them to assimilate into this culture."
The fact is that, through no fault of their own, some refugees don't have the most basic of living skills, observers say.
Refugees from Africa have some of the most challenging circumstances. Most do not speak English, but more impactful is that they cannot read or write in their own language, so the whole system of letters, numbers and symbols is foreign.
"You can imagine that things like writing checks or using the bus system with a system of numbers and letters become their own difficult challenges," said Rebecca Richardson, who is chairman of the English-as-a-second-language department at East High School and is gravely concerned about the situation.
Volunteers like Richardson are walking families through the elaborate transition — looking for and applying for apartments and helping their new friends understand leases, deposits, contracts and other details.
Even instructions from Seasons at Pebble Creek's new management about checking out, turning in keys, the final "walk through" are given in written form the tenants can't read or understand.
Abdio Hamadi and her aunt, Madina Khamis, help the Osman Aden family move from the apartment complex.
After much searching, Richardson found the family an apartment that will keep Aden's teenage daughter in her high school, but the finances will be a tight squeeze.
"The willingness to work and to work hard exists, the skill set often does not," said Richardson of Aden and others in his shoes. "He was a plantation worker in Somalia before they went to the camp. He made a living for his family, and he's frustrated that he can't do that here."
Last February, East High initiated a program to give greater attention to this population, Richardson said. Nearly half of the high school's population is non-native English speaking, and 3 to 5 percent are refugees. "Although the numbers were small, these students struggled to the extreme, and we were not prepared for it," she said.
So the school now offers more intensive support for reading and life skills. All educators with refugee students say school becomes an anchor for students. They know where the lockers are, they know where the bathrooms are, they know where their classes are," Richardson said. "This is a huge thing for these students."
Last spring, she noticed some of her students shutting down. She asked one student about it.
"Why should we even try," the girl told her. "We're just going to be moving again."
Anecdotes about families displaced by the change illustrate complex issues facing Utah's refugee communities.
The Afghan refugee family of Sarfaraz Rahimi is supported solely by daughter Lida, who is in her early 20s, goes to school full time and works full time. Neither of her parents speaks English. Her father is 73 and doesn't work. Her mother is on disability.
Yhaya Khamis, a family friend, carries a TV out of the apartment. The Aden family had moved to the United States from a Kenya refugee camp four years ago. Aden works as a dishwasher at the Grand America hotel, where he earns $6.50 an hour.
Another home was rented by a Somali Bantu mother named Malas who has four children. One of them — a teenager — is the sole support of the family.
Volunteer Veronique Moses is trying to keep four families off the streets. Last week, she bought one of her families a couple of months.
Somali refugee Asiya Mahanadeni has until the end of September to find a new place to live, thanks to Moses, who helped her get an extension past an Aug. 31 deadline.
The 27-year-old woman has five children and also cares for her mother and a nephew. She lives on disability income. Her husband lives in Somalia rearing another family.
Asiya's family is on the Section 8 housing waiting list. She says through an interpreter, 14-year-old Abdullah Mberwa, that she's worried about not being able to find another home. She doesn't know what she will do if Moses, who takes her house hunting, doesn't come up with something. She has nowhere to go.
Moses stops by the apartment complex almost daily to check on her four families. More than a dozen Somali boys and girls maul her at a small playground. She holds a young child on her lap while others try to nudge their way into her arms like puppies in a litter.
"We're moving," one boy says.
"Have you found a house for us?" asks another.
Moses says she has not.
One promising house turned out to be too expensive. Others don't immediately meet Section 8 requirements. It takes "pages and pages of paperwork" to get them eligible, Moses said.
"The problem is they have to have four bedrooms. It has to cost $1,200 or less and we're trying to keep these families together," Moses said. "But when the father works at D.I. and supports five kids, the landlords understandably aren't sure if he'll be able to pay the rent."
Volunteers move furniture out of the apartment complex as Fadumo Mukumbukwa watches. Most families in the complex are refugees.
As Moses speaks, several tussles break out between the children, one between a teenage girl and a younger boy turns mean. She breaks up the scuffles and repeatedly tells the combatants that hitting doesn't solve problems. She consoles the criers, wiping tears and runny noses.
Moses, whose father hooked her up as a volunteer four months ago, attends college and has a job, but there's nowhere she would rather be despite the daily drama.
"I fell in love with the children. I consider them part of my family," she said. Moses started as a tutor but quickly saw the scope of the families' needs.
Some need to be taught how to use a stove, shop and use their money. When mail comes, it has to be read because there are bills that have to be paid. "Basically, there has to be a caseworker for each family," she says. "That's impossible."
Besides refereeing minor disputes and tutoring children in her home, Moses and her husband take them to places like Lagoon amusement park.
"This is a full-time job. In fact, if it were a paying job, it would be the best job in the world," she said. "I've actually put myself in a little debt. It's for a good reason. But it seems like it's never enough."
The greatest worry among many is how this housing transition will affect the kids. "It's going to be very difficult for the children," said Batar.
Area schools — primarily Mountain View and Riley elementary schools — know the cultures and learning issues of refugee children. The schools have teams that work with refugee families.
About 180 children who live in the former Hartland apartments attend Mountain View Elementary School, said principal John Erlacher. About 110 are refugees, and half of them are Somali Bantus.
Volunteer Veronique Moses tries to comfort Mariamo Jamossa. Moses is trying to keep four families off Salt Lake's streets.
He worries displaced students won't get the attention and programs they need at other schools. "We've done so much to meet their needs, and any school they're going to from here won't have the experience we have with this population," he said. "I don't think anyone is prepared to deal with the students at Hartland like Mountain View."
The school has a newcomer program to help children in upper and lower grades learn English. Teachers have gone out of their way to accommodate refugees' transitions to American life. Administrators works closely with the UNP and with families.
"It's just a real comfortable place for the kids to be," Erlacher said.
Children like 5-year-old Noor, Abdio's brother, would have gone to Mountain View and now will go to the neighborhood school near the family's new Central City home.
"These new schools will have to start over," Batar said. "It's just much better for all of the parties to come together to find solutions for Hartland."
Indeed, people are coming together on this issue.
Last week, 50 community, education and business leaders met to discuss the possibility of buying the complex back. Talks are ongoing between local business leaders and the property's new owners.
The upheaval has also raised red flags about access to affordable housing in Utah. Refugee officials say this is particularly daunting with a new wave of refugees headed for Utah.
Nearly 800 refugees from Burundi and Burma will arrive next year. The Burmese refugees have been in camps in Thailand for decades, and the Burundians have lived at least one generation in Tanzanian refugee camps. All will come with limited abilities for independence and Western living, Batar said. All will need affordable housing and services like those offered at the property known as Hartland.
Source: Deseret Morning News