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Why So Many Asylum Seekers Come to America and Wind Up Homeless

It can take years for the government to process asylum cases, throwing asylum seekers into legal limbo and leaving many without options for permanent housing.

Taddese Dinku. Photo by the author

Taddese Dinku had been a cartographer and surveyor in Ethiopia for nearly four decades when in June 2014, at the age of 64, the local police arrested him at his home in Addis Ababa. They told him it was because he would not join the Ethiopian People's Revolutionary Democratic Front, the country's ruling political party, which is known for systematically quashing dissent.

Dinku spent 15 days in jail, fearing for his life—because, as he put it in a recent interview, "If they put you in jail, they may kill you." So that December, he boarded a plane from Addis Ababa to Washington, DC, where he planned to seek asylum. He arrived at the airport, and not knowing anybody in the city, boarded a bus, eventually ending up at a terminal in the southeastern part of DC. He spent three days at the station, enduring freezing temperatures, unsure what to do next.

Then Dinku got lucky. He met another Ethiopian man who, after hearing Dinku's story, drove the newly arrived asylum seeker to the offices of the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC), a Washington-based nonprofit that aids torture survivors. By the time they arrived, Dinku was so sick from exposure, representatives from the group immediately called an ambulance to take him to a nearby hospital.

Upon his release, Dinku spent three weeks in a homeless shelter before eventually reconnecting with the support group, which offered him space in a house the organization operates in Maryland. It was a fortuitous turn of events for the impoverished, desperate man, who subsequently joined six other asylum seekers living in the group home.

Taddese Dinku at a group home for asylum seekers in Maryland. Photo by the author

For asylum seekers, the search for shelter can be an immediate and pressing need, according to Aimee Miller, a social worker at Human Rights First, a Washington-based organization that provides legal assistance to asylum seekers. Unlike refugees, who are pre-screened by the government and are eligible for federal assistance upon arrival, asylum seekers first have to get to the US—by using a visa, requesting help at a port of entry, or by entering illegally—before they can even submit a petition. And they are ineligible for most government benefits during the application period, which can take years.

"Many of the clients that we've come to represent have no savings—no financial resources whatsoever—so they're really relying on the generosity of others," Miller said. "That's where the housing comes in. They are living on people's couches, in spare bedrooms, if they're lucky. Basically living with whoever will let them live with them."

Asylum seekers have long struggled to find housing in the US, but a growing backlog of cases in the Department of Homeland Security's asylum division and in federal immigration courts has exacerbated the problem, according to nearly two dozen interviews with asylum applicants and nonprofit groups that work with this population. Since December 2014, the DHS has prioritized asylum cases from new arrivals at the US-Mexico border, lengthening the amount of time that the the global pool of asylum seekers must wait before their applications are processed. According to data published last month by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, securing an asylum interview—a process that once took six to eight weeks—can now take two to four years.

Dana Leigh Marks, president of the National Association of Immigration Judges, says immigration courts are "dramatically underfunded" and the focus on cases of recent crossers has stretched resources thin. "People in certain places can have their asylum applications pending for four or five years," she said.

As asylum seekers wait for their applications to wind through the system, the search for housing can be touch-and-go. Most housing support for this population comes from charity organizations, and the demand clearly outweighs the resources available. The Asylee Women Enterprise, a Baltimore-based nonprofit, for example, currently houses about 25 people, but has nearly three dozen other asylum seekers on its waiting list, according to executive director Molly Corbett.

Even the kindness of friends and family can wear thin as months turn to years, said Miller, of Human Rights First. "They think, OK, it's just going to be a couple months that I'll be staying here, and then I'll be able to get out on my own," she explained. "And then three months turns into six months, which could turn into a year or more."

The biggest challenge for nonprofit groups is funding, said Matthew Dolamore, a program manager for the Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, another Baltimore-based organization. The group has been looking at lower-cost housing models, such as placing asylum seekers with host families and in convents, and renting out affordable rooms at places like the YMCA, Dolamore said.

Didier Vakombua knows what it's like to rely on the kindness of distant friends. An immigrant from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Vakombua worked as the director of a small hospital in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but says he was jailed in 2008 for showing the bodies of murdered protesters to foreign human rights activists. That year, he fled to Los Angeles, where he knew some friends through his Baptist church.

But life in the US was tougher than it had been in Luozi, his hometown, where Vakombua says it was easy to find affordable housing. In Los Angeles, he ended up sleeping on a futon in the living room of a one-bedroom apartment, while two other friends shared the bedroom. Although he didn't have legal work authorization, he took a job as a part-time security guard, earning $8 an hour—barely enough to pay his $250 monthly rent and cover basic living expenses.

Even after his asylum request was approved in 2013, Vakombua continued to struggle with housing. He planned to bring his wife and two children to the US, but couldn't imagine how he would pay for an apartment with enough space for all of them. Luckily, Public Counsel, an LA-based legal aide firm offered a solution: The organization introduced him to an elderly American couple willing to let Vakombua and his family stay in their home.

They still live there today, in bedrooms that once belonged to the couple's now-grown children. Since finding permanent housing, Vakombua has earned his license as a certified nursing assistant; he now works at a health clinic in Los Angeles, and said he hopes to one day practice medicine as a doctor again.

Related: Inside the UK Asylum System: From Eritrea to Northern England

Still, many asylum seekers find themselves out of options for permanent housing, and sometimes turn to homeless shelters—a solution that can often present its own set of problems. Geoffrey Mwanthi, a 57-year-old Kenyan immigrant living in San Diego, said that he bounced between friends' couches after arriving in the US to seek asylum in 2013, but eventually moved into a homeless shelter. He lived there for five or six months, he said, before a county mental health clinician found him a shared room at a boarding house.

But shelter environments can be jarring for new immigrants, many of whom are coping with trauma sustained in their home countries. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health found that more than 30 percent of asylum seekers had endured some form of torture.

"There are legal barriers, cultural barriers, and linguistic barriers that homeless shelters are just not set up to deal with appropriately," Dolamore explained.

In Mwanthi's case, he says he is unable to stand for long periods of time as a result of a politically and religiously motivated attack in Kenya that broke both his legs. After his petition for asylum was approved, in August 2015, he applied for federal disability benefits, citing his injuries, but the request was denied. He is now appealing the decision in the hopes that he can use the benefits to pay for a place to live.

"At this point," he said, "I'm not choosey."

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