Increasing numbers of Somali immigrants living in the western U.S. city of Seattle are facing homelessness due to soaring rental prices that exacerbate other economic and refugee hardships, activists told VOA.
The community activists say hundreds of Somalis have lost their places of residence over the past year, unable to pay the monthly rent. Some are lucky enough to move in with relatives or friendly families; others are forced into public shelters or are living on the streets.
Hamdi Abdulle is the director of Seattle’s African Community Housing and Development, an organization that works to provide homes, education, jobs and food access for refugees.
She says many refugees from Somalia and other African countries face tough situations from the moment they arrive in the United States.
“The reasons are clear. They come to this country empty-handed, the welfare they get from the government is not enough and the rental prices skyrocket. All these factors combined are the reasons they face evictions and eventually become homeless,” Abdulle said.
Sahra Bashir Farah – better known to many as Mama Shara -- is the director of Somali Community Services of Seattle.
“The whole city became very expensive when it came to housing,” she says. “For example, the rental cost of a house for a family, which used to be $1,000 [per month] is now $3,000. Our Somali people are low-income people. They cannot afford this exorbitantly expensive rent.”
Farah says the situation has forced many Somali immigrants to relocate to suburban areas such as Tukwila and SeaTac, where rental prices are lower. Living in the suburbs, however, makes it hard for them to reach their places of employment, and cuts them off from the markets, mosques and community centers they know and on which they rely.
Young people make up the majority of homeless Somalis seen on the streets of Seattle.
A common misconception within the Somali community is that youth on the streets are rebellious, headstrong runaways or on drugs.
The truth is different, according to Abdulle.
“The reason is when the youth are in the ages between 16-18, they leave their families thinking they can be independent, but when they leave, things become more difficult, and they face more economic challenges that finally lead them to homelessness.”
Other community members who risk homelessness are those who entered the U.S. on Diversity Immigrant Visas, as these visa holders are ineligible for public assistance and must wait years before they can qualify for federal benefits such as Medicaid.
The Diversity Immigrant Visa Program — popularly known as the green card lottery — is a program authorized by Congress where 55,000 green cards per year are reserved for immigrants around the world to promote diversity in the U.S. Registration starts well before any given fiscal year to allow time for processing applications.
Farah says the tight-knit Somali community finds housing as quickly as possible for those who have lost their apartments or houses.
“We help each other,” she says. “We look for other houses for the homeless and if it is a family, instead of staying in public or spending [time] out in the streets, we seek help from friends and other families to provide temporary shelter.”
Hundreds of thousands of Somalis have relocated to the United States over the past three decades, seeking to escape chronic conflict and poverty in their homeland. Estimates of the number of Somali immigrants in Seattle vary widely, from just several thousand to more than 30,000.
The Somalis share the challenges of poverty, unsafe neighborhoods, poor schooling, and language barriers that many other African immigrants and refugees face upon moving to the U.S.
But when it comes to housing issues, they are the most hit because they live in Washington, one of the most expensive states in the U.S., where housing prices are continually rising due to high demand, a shortage of homes and local zoning laws that sometimes limit the number of people in a residence.
Mama Sahra’s non-profit has received millions of dollars in grants from the government for homeless prevention and other community services. She says she wants to pull those who were forced out of the city back to Seattle.
VOA’s Aline Barros contributed to this report.