The Last Place on Earth

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."

Jayme Halbritter

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, overcrowded conditions.

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 academic progress."

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 Christians.

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