As we enter the final months of 2022, it’s clear that refugee resettlement in the United States looks different than it did in past years. Refugee Housing Solutions spoke to Christina Bruce-Bennion, Service Coordination Program Manager at the Idaho Office for Refugees, about navigating these shifts as they pertain to housing partnerships. Bruce-Bennion has worked in refugee resettlement for 26 years. She began her career in Boston and transitioned to working in Idaho in the early 2000s.
Based on Bruce-Bennion’s suggestions, this blog post provides four tips for State Offices for Refugees and others seeking to expand their housing partnerships with diverse stakeholders.
In a Changing Landscape, Start by Assessing Local Needs
When we foster partnerships with a variety of stakeholders, it’s crucial that we take the time to understand our new landscape. Nationally, housing looks different now than it did a few years ago. But those changes manifest differently in each community. The first step in adaptation is understanding. Ask, “What has changed locally?”
In 2008, Idaho conducted a needs assessment of local housing capacity. This led to the creation of Neighbors United, a collaborative initiative to help refugees integrate and thrive in Boise. Neighbors United addresses refugees’ needs related to transportation, education, housing, employment, healthcare, and social integration.
Center Refugee and Newcomer Voices
No one understands the refugee experience like those who are living it. If housing partners don’t have a complete understanding of the people they are supporting and advocating for, their work might be misguided. Meaningful consultation with newcomers is the best way to begin identifying problems and crafting solutions.
Conversations about refugees and other newcomers have been highly politicized and contentious—often based on skewed perceptions and misinformation. Human connection can help remedy these mischaracterizations. For example, when Bruce-Bennion makes advocacy visits to Idaho legislators, she often invites people who have settled locally to speak as well. No one can explain their lived experiences better. As Bruce-Bennion put it, “they give a human face” to a conversation that often strays into pure ideology.
Be Open to Partnerships with a Wide Array of Organizations
When organizations in the housing sector connect with diverse partners, this expands their reach and success. As you explore new housing partnerships, consider engaging with the following groups:
- Fair housing advocates: In the late 2010s, fair housing advocates and resettlement agencies in Idaho realized that they “all cared about the same thing: [that refugees are] housed and empowered to make informed choices surrounding housing,” said Bruce-Bennion. Out of that understanding came a long-term partnership. The Idaho Office for Refugees began a series of information-sharing sessions and related cross-training with the fair housing advocacy groups. As a result, fair housing sector stakeholders have a better understanding of refugees, and the resettlement professionals now know more about the Housing Rights Act. Fair housing education for refugees is now woven into the resettlement process in Idaho. And every April—Fair Housing Month—the advocates lead outreach events across the state.
- Social housing-related movements: Plugging into any housing-related movement, whether or not it is focused on refugees and other newcomers, broadens resettlement practitioners’ understanding of affordable housing and ultimately expands housing accessibility. For example, the workforce housing movement focuses on locals who are being priced out of housing—typically folks earning between 60 and 120 percent of area median income (AMI)—not necessarily newcomers to a community. But from Bruce-Bennion’s perspective, there is good reason to engage with these advocates. “When you engage with groups outside of your own organization, you have a broader group of people who understand resettlement advocating for refugees,” Bruce-Bennion said. When services and systems work for people in a resettlement program, they also work better for all people.
- Social service policy teams: Partners in the policy sector are crucial to housing advocacy. Bruce-Bennion highlighted the Idaho Office for Refugees’ partnership with Jannus, a social service nonprofit umbrella that houses several organizations, including a social service policy team. During legislative sessions, the team at Jannus cues her and her team into relevant refugee-related legislation. Rather than dedicating time on their own team to conducting ground-level research, the Idaho Office for Refugees leans on policy-expert partners like Jannus, whose job is to be aware of legislation. “They help bring policies [that we may not have been aware of] to our attention,” Bruce-Bennion said. “[F]rom there, we conduct our own research and decide whether to sign on in support.”
Take a Creative Approach to Housing Solutions
Over the last six months, resettlement agencies and local businesses in Boise worked collaboratively to create Monarch Landing. Previously a hotel, Monarch Landing is a complex of temporary living areas for newcomers who now have safe shelter while they look for long-term housing. On-site cultural orientations, English classes, group activities, and meals are among the programs and services that differentiate Monarch Landing from typical temporary accommodations, which are less comprehensive. The collective focus of all the Idaho stakeholders is, of course, to minimize the need for temporary and short-term housing. While advocates identify paths to housing affordability, accessibility, and permanence, maintaining an imaginative approach to temporary housing will make a difference to all newcomers caught between long-term homes.
- To learn more about the work the Idaho Office for Refugees has done and continues to do, visit their website.
- Connect with Refugee Housing Solutions (RHS) to learn about how our subject matter experts can help house refugees in your community. Click here to schedule a 1:1 technical assistance session.