The long-term plight of the evacuees

MN resettlement groups picking up slack for Feds

In a way, this was the week that never was for Minnesota and Katrina survivors. Earlier there were initial reports that many evacuees balked at the idea of coming this far north, so far from home. That seemed to ring true when the estimated 1,000 to 3,000 displaced set to arrive at Camp Ripley never came.

But it seems likely that many evacuees will end up here anyway, whether they think they want to or not.

For starters, there are those who are registering with state and charity officials at the State Assistance Center on Energy Park Drive in St. Paul. Yesterday, the first day it was open, the SAC had some 200 displaced come through its doors. Most folks there indicated they'd be staying in Minnesota for a while--and, in many cases, permanently.

But more importantly, there is the long-term resettlement issue. Minnesota has long been a Mecca for refugee resettlement and secondary migration, going back to the Hmong and Laotians who came here in the late 1970s, and continuing with the large number of Somali refugees who came here in the mid-1990s.

The reason is that out of the 11 organizations that do refugee resettlement in the United States, seven of them are in Minnesota. What's become clear in the last two weeks is that the Federal government is in no position to help Katrina victims with any sort of long-term planning. So the Feds are turning to the Minnesota groups--including the Minnesota Council of Churches, Lutheran Social Services and the like--for help.

"We've had billions of meetings with the nationals," confirms John Borden, a resettlement expert at the International Institute of Minnesota. "They want to know if we're willing and able to replicate the refugee work with the evacuees."

Additionally, the state's relatively steady economy has ensured that numbers regarding entry-level jobs and affordable housing are better than in many places. With the hundreds of thousands now without homes, there's reason to believe that eventually, the state will see another significant resettlement wave. After all, the displaced can't all stay in Baton Rouge and Houston.

"It's clear that the Federal government is reaching out to the VOAGs"--volunteer agencies--"now that they've realized the scale and scope of the displacement," Borden continues. "These people need a single point of contact for a long period of time, rather than being shuffled from agency to agency. That's where we come in."

Because places like Borden's International Institute specialize in job training, housing, and helping family members reunite, "we might be in place for the nationals to bring a steady stream of people to us in the Twin Cities," he says.

"All this is just talk at this point," Borden says, before adding that evacuees "in significant numbers overall" will arrive here at some point. "I don't know if it's a day, a month, or a year, but it looks like it'll happen."

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