What’s next for organizations like Freedom House in the changing political climate?
Photos by Lauren Jeziorski
hen a 70-year old, French-speaking woman from West Africa arrived at Freedom House, the organization — per protocol — contacted CAM, an agency that connects the homeless population with the various homeless assistance programs in Metro Detroit. New arrivals at Freedom House need to be screened by CAM before being placed in a program that fits their needs.
Before, a homeless individual who went through these channels would be readily placed. But for the septuagenarian, this wasn’t the case.
“They didn’t even ask us any questions. They just said there’s no availability throughout the whole Detroit area,” Freedom House Executive Director Deborah Drennan tells BLAC. “Nobody knows what to do with this population. They need to be housed before their visas expire, they need legal aid. That’s what Freedom House does.”
Freedom House is a temporary home for survivors of persecution from around the world who are seeking asylum in the United States. They provide legal assistance, English classes, and prepare them to become independent members in their new communities once asylum is granted.
Earlier this year, with only three months notice, Freedom House was notified that they would no longer receive funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, a funding source which accounted for 60 percent of their annual budget.
When they were notified that they would be losing their funding in January, there have been multiple individuals and families in need of Freedom House’s services who haven’t “officially” been able be placed in the facility through the Coordinated Assessment Model.
“We can’t put them out on the street,” Drennan says. “Apparently it’s okay for CAM to say there’s no availability, but as an organization with multiple funding sources, we would never, ever put someone out on the street.”
HUD regulates funding for housing programs through an established program called Continuum of Care, which is present in networks between nonprofits and local and state governments nationwide. The CoC for Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park is led by the Homeless Action Network of Detroit. Using set criteria determined by HUD, the CoC ranks each organization in order of priority for funding.
In 2017, Freedom House was ranked second to the last, effectively cutting their HUD funding.
“When we met with the HAND staff to ask what happened, there were two issues,” Drennan says. “One is they acknowledged that the CoC does not see refugees and asylum seekers as a priority. Secondly, HUD itself is changing its housing model.”
As part of HUD’s ten-year plan to end homelessness in the U.S., Drennan says the department established a list of priority demographics and housing models. Freedom House falls under the transitional housing model, which is ranked third in terms of HUD priorities. Within the organizations that fall under transitional housing, HUD prioritized veterans, youth out of foster care, domestic violence survivors and people exiting substance abuse treatment centers.
But while many transitional-housing organizations have had difficulty placing the individuals who come into their care, Freedom House stood out.
“We know HUD was looking to redirect the funding from transitional housing to these permanent support of housing programs, but we were surprised that Freedom House, with our successful outcomes of 94 percent of our residents exiting self sufficient into permanent housing, that our CoC didn’t see us as a priority,” Drennan says.
“We asked them what plans do they have? Because Freedom House is close to 35 years in service, people know about us, they’re coming anyway. What plans does the CoC have to help this new homeless population that’s coming,” Drennan adds. “They had no plans. They hadn’t even thought what they would do.”
Freedom House’s HUD funding is expected to run out in April, and since future funding is not secured, they aren’t able to take on any new U.S. cases.
“It takes at least 8 months to complete a claim, so if we won’t have funding in April, we can’t ethically commit to providing services for someone that may have to leave if we’re not funded.”
Freedom House is working to keep their services going. They’re currently in the process of appealing the decision with HAND and with HUD. They’re developing an online petition as well as a list of addresses for key decision makers at HUD in hopes of being able to persuade them to rescind the decision to eliminate funding.
“We’re really asking people to help us to get funds,” Drennan says. “Many of the businesses and corporations throughout Southeastern Michigan have become vocal in their disagreement in the Trump Administration’s handling of the refugee situation and immigrants overall. So we’re confident that some of these corporations will step up and help, and we’re in the process of reaching out to some of them.”
The need for services like Freedom House is no less needed in today’s global climate. According to the United Nation refugee agency’s global trends report, from 2014 to 2015, there was a 42 percent increase in the U.S. of the number of applications submitted for asylum. Last year, Freedom House serviced almost 150 clients.
“That means 150 people are going to come to this continuum of care and not be serviced and end up in homelessness and at risk,” Drennan says.
The UNHCR estimates that more than 12 million people were newly displaced in 2015 due to conflict or persecution. Whether or not the current administration chooses to be sensitive to the needs of these populations remains to be seen — although in recent days, compassion is not likely.
“As we continue to see the global political landscape deteriorate, those numbers are only bound to increase, so the need for our services are paramount,” Freedom House program manager Thomas Rogers says.
“I think with what’s going on right now and what we are hearing from leadership around the country, there’s this rampant use of fear of the other and fear of losing resources if we continue to uphold our American tradition of welcoming people who are yearning to breathe free,” Rogers says. “Fear is a very powerful emotion and until people are able to read the facts and meet people that receive these services and these populations are humanized, that fear is going to continue to win.”