[URBANTH-L]NEWS: The Last Place on Earth (Hmong Refugees in
acjancius at ysu.edu
Fri Jan 27 00:26:23 EST 2006
Jan 25 2006 -- Minneapolis/St. Paul City Pages
The Last Place on Earth
by Paul Demko + photos by Jayme Halbritter
After the final remaining Hmong refugee camp in Thailand closed, Minnesota
greeted five thousand new residents with warm words and closed doors. Now
many are homeless and struggling to survive.
CHUE YANG ARRIVED IN THE UNITED STATES in July 2004. The 40-year-old married
father of six initially settled his family in Atlanta with the help of his
wife's relatives. He had spent the prior 26 years living in Hmong refugee
camps in Thailand. Yang had little work experience, had never driven a car,
and could speak almost no English.
Last January, Yang and his family relocated to Minnesota, where the bulk of
his relatives live. The eight-person family moved into a two-bedroom
apartment in north Minneapolis that cost $665 a month, not including
utilities. With no one in the household working, and just a welfare check to
support them, the bills quickly piled up. Yang says that he borrowed at
least $3,000 from relatives to feed and shelter his family.
Finally in August, unable to keep up with his bills, Yang moved his family
to Mary's Place, a homeless shelter in north Minneapolis, just off Olson
Highway. The family now shares a two-bedroom apartment in the 92-unit
facility. "I just need a place to save some money and pay off my bills,"
Yang says on a recent weekday afternoon, speaking through a translator at
Mary's Place. He wears a white dress shirt and black pants that are too big
for his stocky, barely five-foot frame. "We're happy to be here. When we
came from Thailand we didn't have anything."
Yang has recently secured a job, working 30 hours a week as a janitor for $8
an hour. "It's a job," he responds when asked how he likes the work. But
he's uncertain when-or if-he'll have the financial resources to move his
family into their own residence.
Yang's family was among the first Hmong refugees to show up at Mary's Place
seeking help. At the beginning of July there wasn't a single Hmong resident
at the facility, run by the nonprofit group Sharing & Caring Hands. But in
the ensuing months, as word has spread in the refugee community, families
have been arriving at an alarming clip. As of last week, there were 221
Hmong residents at Mary's Place-157 of them children. The overwhelming
majority of them are among the roughly 5,000 Hmong people who have settled
in Minnesota during the last two years, following the closure of the last
refugee camp in Thailand.
"I think what happened is there were a lot of people in this situation and
nobody knew where to go," says Charlotte Kinzley, a family advocate at
Mary's Place. "It's not something that the Hmong community has ever really
had to deal with." The influx has already severely taxed the nonprofit
group's ability to meet needs. "There have been times when we've had to turn
families away because we didn't have space," says Kinzley.
"More and more are being evicted," adds Mary Jo Copeland, the founder of
Sharing & Caring Hands, speaking of the refugees. "I see the eviction
notices on all these people. It's just incredible." Copeland notes that the
organization has also seen a huge spike in the number of Hmong people coming
to Sharing & Caring Hands to pick up free clothing. "They don't have any
coats," she says. "They don't have any shoes."
The situation at Mary's Place is just one facet of an emerging housing
crisis among recent Hmong refugees. Few have viable job skills or speak
English. Many are running up debts to relatives or living in squalid,
Youa Vang, a 36-year-old married mother of seven, arrived in Minnesota in
November 2004. At first, she says, her family shared a two-bedroom apartment
in north Minneapolis with broken windows, a furnace that seldom worked, and
numerous cockroaches. The rent was $700. No one in her household has a job.
They moved to Mary's Place in September. Vang is bewildered by her new
country. "Everything has to do with writing, reading, and money," she says,
speaking through a translator, her faced lined with wrinkles that belie her
age. "Thailand and Laos are different situations."
Tony Yang, a family therapist with Ramsey County Mental Health Center, says
that he had a client whose family lived in a condemned, cockroach-infested
home in St. Paul for half a year because they couldn't find another
affordable residence. Yang worries about how such dismal living conditions
will affect the psychological health of refugees. "It's all interconnected,"
he says. "If you're not able to meet those basic needs, it obviously drives
those mental health issues."
With so many children among the Hmong residents at Mary's Place, there's
also a concern about the housing instability's impact on their education.
"Becoming homeless always is disruptive to education," says Margo Hurrle,
who monitors homeless students enrolled in the Minneapolis public school
system. "Just the emotional upheaval that you go through, it delays your
Jim Anderson, Ramsey County's planner for immigrant and refugee services,
figures that the folks at Mary's Place are in some ways lucky. "Right now
they're in better shape than a whole lot of families," he says. "I've
actually been amazed that they've been able to free up that many apartments
over a relatively short period of time."
While those familiar with the situation praise Mary's Place for stemming a
potential catastrophe, many also wonder whether living at the
Catholic-affiliated shelter will only further the refugees' disaffection and
culture shock. The walls of the center are adorned with crosses and
religious paintings. Mandatory Thursday meetings for residents are basically
church services. After making some announcements, Mary Jo Copeland leads the
assembled through prayers and hymns. Most of the Hmong staying there are not
"How would I feel as a Catholic if I had to have a menorah and Star of David
in every room of my shelter?" says Monica Nelson, director of community
development at The Bridge for Runaway Youth, a Minneapolis nonprofit group
that works with homeless young people. "It's religiously insensitive."
Nelson also questions whether Mary's Place and other facilities that shelter
homeless people-already taxed with roughly 20,000 people living without
permanent shelter on any given night in Minnesota-can handle the added
stress. "It's helpful to the families that they are able to stay there, but
it is unhelpful to the system," says Nelson. "When you keep packing in more
and more people, the quality of the service goes down."
State Sen. Mee Moua, who is Hmong, says that she only became aware of the
situation after getting a call from a worker at Mary's Place. "With winter
coming and the high cost of utilities I'm not surprised," says the St. Paul
legislator. "The reality is that when the bills start to pile up people can
borrow and make ends meet for two or three months, but there comes a point
where you're just like, 'Oh, I can't do that anymore.'"
Moua visited Mary's Place in November, meeting with the residents. "Some of
the people were pretty emotional," she says. "They're pretty disillusioned."
Moua is concerned that the inability of these refugee families to make ends
meet will fuel anti-immigrant sentiments, even though they are here at the
invitation of the U.S. government. Earlier this month, Gov. Tim Pawlenty
proposed several new measures aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants,
most notably a new 10-officer police unit charged with arresting
undocumented residents. "I'm very concerned that these families are going to
get stigmatized," Moua says. "Given the reality of the current political
climate of the state of Minnesota-where I think it's not inaccurate to say
that there's a chill towards immigrants- I certainly don't want to feed that
IN DECEMBER 2003, THE U.S. AND THAI governments announced an agreement to
close the final Hmong refugee camp, known as Wat Tham Krabok, and resettle
the families in this country. At the time there were roughly 14,500 people
living in the camp, which surrounded a Buddhist monastery.
Many Hmong fought on the side of the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Fearing
persecution after the U.S. withdrawal, hundreds of thousands fled to
Thailand. But they were deemed illegal immigrants by the Thai government and
restricted to refugee camps. Starting in the late '70s, waves of these
refugees have made their way to the U.S. Today it's estimated that there are
250,000 people of Hmong heritage across the country.
Starting with an initial influx of roughly 60 refugees in 1976, the Twin
Cities gradually attracted the largest Hmong population in the country. A
2004 report by the Minnesota State Demographic Center estimated that there
are 60,000 Hmong residents in the state. Therefore it was immediately
evident that a significant chunk of the refugees from Wat Tham Krabok would
ultimately end up settling in this area. Initial estimates predicted that
the state would see an influx of 5,000 additional residents.
At the time that the resettlement program was announced, public officials
made countless statements about welcoming the displaced families to
Minnesota and making their transition to a new culture as seamless as
possible. Then-St. Paul Mayor Randy Kelly led a delegation to inspect the
Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp and see what the needs of the residents would
likely be once they arrived in the U.S.
"We didn't know anything about this population anymore," says Ramsey
County's Jim Anderson, a member of the St. Paul delegation who also spent a
decade working at refugee camps in Thailand. "We didn't know who was there.
We didn't know if it was an elderly population or a sick population. We
didn't know if they had any education."
The delegation of experts spent two weeks at the camp, interviewing 91
families about their living conditions, health status, and educational
backgrounds. Upon returning to Minnesota, they created a report detailing
the potential services that would be needed by the refugees when they
arrived. The findings were disturbing, if hardly surprising. Almost
two-thirds of the refugees were under the age of 18. Chronic malnutrition
was endemic. Literacy rates were higher than in previous waves of refugees,
but English language skills were almost nonexistent. Many of the people had
spent the majority of their lives living in refugee camps, dependent on the
benevolence of others for food and shelter. Few Hmong refugees had any
notable work experience.
In March 2004, the Pioneer Press editorial board lauded the benevolent
spirit of Minnesotans after a packed house showed up at Lao Family Community
in St. Paul to hear about the reconnaissance mission to Thailand. "The
hundreds of people who attended-and the dozens turned away at the door when
the hall overflowed-were a testament to St. Paul's and Minnesota's big heart
and roll-up-the-shirtsleeves spirit in the face of a challenge," the
unsigned editorial opined.
While the refugee influx was slower than anticipated at first, 4,972 former
residents of Wat Tham Krabok have so far relocated directly to Minnesota,
according to the Minnesota Department of Health. In other words, the state
has received almost exactly the number of refugees it anticipated.
But as the housing woes now plaguing recent Hmong refugees show, they have
not always found the open arms and abundant social services so widely
praised and promised by politicians and editorial writers. "There's a big
difference between me saying I welcome you here and me saying I'll assist
you financially in settling," notes Monica Nelson.
Right now Mary's Place and other homeless shelters are basically the only
option for Hmong refugees who cannot afford to pay rent on the open market.
The waiting lists for Section 8 vouchers, which allow families to pay just
30 percent of their income for rent, are so extensive that they are not a
feasible option. The Section 8 list maintained by the Public Housing
Authority of St. Paul, for example, has been closed since 2002. "It just got
to the point where we didn't think it was providing a service to anyone to
still be taking names," says Al Hester, the city's housing policy director.
Even so, there were still 1,602 names on the list as of the end of November.
The news is no better in Minneapolis. Currently there are almost 7,000
households waiting for subsidized housing. The city's housing authority
hasn't added any new names to the waiting list since 2003.
The prospects of getting into subsidized housing projects are just as
dismal. In St. Paul there are now roughly 7,000 people on the waiting list
to gain residence at developments such as Mt. Airy Homes or McDonough Homes.
The city owns 4,235 units of subsidized housing, meaning the wait to land a
unit will almost certainly be years. "Frankly, we've been talking again
about whether we have to close that list," says Hester. "It's kind of
wait-and-see right now."
What's more, the motivation (and consequentially the dollars) to build
additional public housing stock has evaporated in recent years. In St. Paul
the housing authority hasn't purchased or built any new public housing in a
Perhaps the most troublesome aspect of the Hmong housing situation is that
it was eminently predictable. "We knew going in that probably the biggest
difficulty that was going to face the new arrivals was housing," says Ramsey
County's Anderson. "There's no subsidies available and there's no public
In 2004, Ramsey County applied for a grant from the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services to help subsidize housing costs. It would have
provided $500 per month in housing assistance for 18 months to the neediest
25 percent of refugees relocating to Ramsey County. The grant application,
however, was rejected. "Currently there's really nothing that will provide
ongoing assistance," concludes Anderson. "It's a real big, big problem."
Accordingly there are very few resources available to assist refugees who
are facing the prospect of homelessness. In 2004 the St. Paul Foundation
dispensed $600,000 to nonprofit groups around the state to allocate as
emergency grants for struggling immigrants. Refugees (Hmong or otherwise)
who had been in the country for less than two years were eligible. The
maximum total grant, however, was $750. "It doesn't really meet housing
needs all that well, but it can pay for a month's rent," says Michael
Conaboy, program associate at the St. Paul Foundation. All of that money,
however, has now been dispensed to local agencies, and there are no plans at
present to provide additional funding for the program.
Senator Moua says that after meeting with the Hmong residents of Mary's
Place she talked with her own mother about how the family made ends meet
upon arriving as refugees from Thailand in 1978. The answer: public housing.
Then she asked her mother-in-law the same question. The answer: public
NANCY JANE MEYER, AN ENGLISH instructor at Hmong American Partnership, sees
the barriers to work that Hmong refugees face every morning. For four hours
each weekday she helps 15 students become proficient in the language of
their new country. The goal is to provide them with enough English skills to
land a job and support their families. Her students were among the early
arrivals from Wat Tham Krabok, and have been in the country for more than a
year. Even so, it's immediately evident on a recent Friday morning in her
St. Paul classroom how far they have to go.
"Good morning, everyone," Meyer says to her class.
"Good morning, Teacher," they respond in unison.
The lesson plan today focuses on the letter L. "What word do you know that
begins with bl?" Meyer asks. "Black," one student answers. "What word do you
know that begins with cl?" she continues. "Class" is the first response. The
exercise continues through fl, gl, pl, and sl, with the students dutifully
calling out words from their limited vocabularies.
Meyer, who has taught English to nonnative speakers for more than a decade,
says that it takes anywhere from five to seven years for a student to become
proficient in the language. Only two of her students have managed to land
jobs so far, part-time gigs at Fed Ex. The rest of them survive on monthly
checks from the state's welfare fund, the Minnesota Family Investment
Program, and loans from family members.
But in some respects these students are among the more fortunate of the
recent refugee arrivals. They are at least enrolled in English classes and
taking steps toward becoming employed. Hundreds of other people are stuck on
waiting lists. In St. Paul alone, for instance, there are 135-175 Hmong
refugees waiting to begin classes, according to the St. Paul Community
And this situation is far from an anomaly. "There are waiting lists all
across the metro area, and that's been going on for quite some time now,"
says Eric Nesheim, executive director of the Minnesota Literacy Council.
Nesheim says that his organization and others lobbied the Legislature last
year to increase funding for adult language classes, citing the influx of
refugees, but their efforts proved fruitless.
"This whole system was devised by people who know nothing about refugee
resettlement or language acquisition," Meyer says. Students often tell her
that they'd rather be back in the refugee camp. "It's cold here, they don't
speak the language, and they live in the same crowded conditions as in the
camp," Meyer notes.
When the subject of Mary's Place is brought up during her class, several
students indicate that they have heard of the place. One of them wants to
know if there is a similar shelter in St. Paul that they can go to and live
Cha Vang, one of the students in class today, arrived in Minnesota in
October of 2004 with his wife and five children, all under the age of 10.
Prior to that he'd lived in various refugee camps in Thailand since he was
eight years old. Relatives helped him find a two-story house to rent in St.
Paul, near Oakland Cemetery, just west of Interstate 35E. The cost: $1,350
per month, not including utilities. "It's more than my entire income," Vang
says, speaking through an interpreter. In fact, with six children, the
family is entitled to an MFIP grant of exactly $1,350. (The couple had
another child after arriving in the U.S.)
In addition, Vang owes money for the plane tickets that brought his family
to Minnesota, roughly $3,000, payable in monthly installments. Last January,
four additional family members, including his mother and his brother, joined
the household, bringing total occupancy to 12. None of them has a job.
After class the 30-year-old refugee provides a tour of his home. It's a
dilapidated two-story yellow structure with no shutters and peeling paint.
Inside the furnishings are extremely sparse. A Clinton-era computer sits in
one corner of the living room. An old 12-inch TV is on the floor. The only
furniture is a well-worn two-person couch. The six kids sleep in one
bedroom, split between three mattresses. Vang and his wife, Pa Hang, sleep
in the other downstairs bedroom. The remaining four relatives share the
Vang is obviously embarrassed by the humble surroundings, but he hopes that
things will eventually improve. "Right now I go to school, study English,"
he says quietly, without aid of an interpreter. "I want to go to work."
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