The Last Place on Earth

Jayme Halbritter

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, 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.

"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 flame."


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 decade.

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 housing available."

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 housing.


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 Literacy Consortium.

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 for free.

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 upstairs.

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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