“Our biggest challenge in helping these people is to find housing for them,” said Amy Weiss, the director of refugee and immigrant services at Jewish Family and Children’s Services of the East Bay. “They come with no employment history and no housing history. San Francisco is hard enough to find housing if you have an income. It is a huge problem for us and for them and to anybody resettling refugees.”
The agency is believed to be the only one in the country that has developed a specific program to work with LGBT refugees. It began four years ago when a number of Iranian LGBT refugees, who had fled to Turkey, needed help resettling in the U.S.
Since then the agency has worked with a number of LGBT refugees, mostly gay men from Africa and the Middle East. In November Junior Mayema arrived from Capetown, South Africa, where he had fled five years ago from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The university student had left Congo’s capital Kinshasa because his pastor mother had vowed to murder him for being gay. He headed for South Africa due to its reputation for having some of the strongest LGBT protections of any nation on the African continent.
Yet Mayema said he encountered xenophobic and homophobic attitudes there and was attacked one evening walking down the street. He also claimed that the local police beat him up when he sought them out to report being harassed by his landlord, as recounted in a story about Mayema posted online by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
UNHCR staff, after learning about Mayema’s alleged attack, referred his case for resettlement last summer. Four months later, according to the account, he was granted refugee status and, in November, arrived in the Bay Area where he received assistance from the Jewish agency and a local church-sponsored group in acclimating to his new surroundings.
Of all the challenges he faced, “housing was the biggest problem,” said Mayema, 28. “Volunteers knew friends in San Francisco and begged them to give me a room in their house for a few months.”
For the first three months he stayed with a couple in the city’s Sunset district. When they left for a trip to India, he moved in with a woman whose son was away at college.
After that living situation came to an end, Mayema was accepted into a transitional housing program run by a San Francisco nonprofit. But he needs to find new accommodations by September.
“In the U.S. I am facing homelessness,” Mayema told the Bay Area Reporter in a recent interview. “I don’t want to end up on the streets.”
It is a concerning prospect, said Mayema, because he is currently only working part-time as a cashier at AT&T Park, the Giant’s baseball stadium, and has been unable to find full-time work and is unsure how he can afford to pay market rate rents.
“I don’t make enough money,” said Mayema, who would like to return to college and someday work in international law helping other refugees. “You need to have a job to survive. But it is not happening.”
Church group offers help
Mayema has found social support and housing help from the Guardian Group, a committee formed by members of the First Unitarian Universalist Society of San Francisco. The group began in 2011 after a church member learned about the needs of LGBT refugees from the founder of ORAM, the Organization for Refugee, Asylum and Migration, according to Galen Workman, a co-founder of the Guardian Group.
The first person they helped was a gay Iranian living in Turkey they had first spoken with via Skype. In 2013 the 21-year-old arrived in the Bay Area as a refugee.
“It was heart breaking,” recalled Workman, 62, a gay man and 32-year member of the church. “He was in a rural area of Turkey with other refugees who didn’t know he was gay.”
The Guardian Group was later introduced to staff at the Jewish agency and now provides what assistance it can to the LGBT refugees, as well LGBT asylum seekers, the East Bay nonprofit helps resettle in the Bay Area. To date, the guardians have worked with a dozen people, all but one a man, equally divided between refugees and asylees.
In addition to housing help, they also try to foster social relationships for the new arrivals. They host dinners and other gatherings, explain how the city’s transit systems work, and assist with navigating government agencies such as the Department of Motor Vehicles and Social Security Administration.
“A real problem for sexual minority refugees is how isolated they are. None of them woke up wanting to go live in the United States,” said Workman. “The fact is the folks we are dealing with had to leave home. They get here and miss their homes, miss their families, miss their friends, miss their status in their home country, and they are very isolated.”
Over the last two years the group has raised $20,000, said treasurer Jay Roller, 68, a gay man who lives in Oakland who used to work for the church and is now retired. The money is used to pay for things like Muni passes, cellphones, and groceries, he said. Such assistance is especially needed for asylum seekers, who arrive in the country on a student or tourist visa and are unable to work while their asylee application is reviewed.
“We are limited in the number of people we can take on by two things: how much money we have to spend and how many people are willing to work with the newcomers,” said Roller. “Believe it or not, we have found most of them free housing in San Francisco. It is not easy, and every time one of them loses their housing, we pull our hair out and start over.”
Cheaper housing elsewhere
Eleven of the people the Guardian Group has helped remain in the Bay Area, while the first person they met recently relocated to Atlanta. He did so in search of cheaper housing and better job opportunities.
So far the move has been positive, as the 25-year-old found an apartment in the city’s Midtown neighborhood and is working as a bartender and waiter at a restaurant.
“I had 65 interviews in (San Francisco) to get a better job. None gave me job; I was really frustrated,” said Firooz, who asked that his last name not be used for fear his family still in Iran could be targeted by religious extremists due to his being gay.
While Firooz praised the Guardian Group for the help he received while in the Bay Area, he questioned the logic of trying to resettle refugees in such an expensive part of the country.
“Refugees in Bay Area not a wise decision. It is not good because Bay Area is not a good address for refugees. Because Bay Area is over, over, very expensive,” said Firooz, who taught himself English while living in Turkey though he admits he still struggles with the language. “I was trying to get better house opportunity; I couldn’t. I had to get out.”
The cost of living in the Bay Area is certainly a challenge compared to other, less expensive regions of the country, acknowledged Weiss, but those areas may not be as hospitable toward LGBT people and not a good location to send refugees already traumatized due to being persecuted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
“With LGBT refugees, the gay community is here. It is not in Ohio,” said Weiss. “We just welcome them the best we can.”
Clair Farley, the associate director of economic development at the LGBT Community Center, said the San Francisco agency routinely fields calls from people around the world looking to move to the area. It now works with a local attorney to offer legal clinics for LGBT asylum seekers and tries to help both asylees and refugees find employment.
“We do see a lot of barriers in supporting folks who are looking for work, mainly because most of our employer partners we work with do require a work visa or some level of documentation,” said Farley. “We have really had to think outside the box how to connect people to additional training or partner with people looking to hire folks.”
The center can also make referrals to housing providers or enroll those who are eligible into its own housing programs that help people access below-market-rate rental units. But finding new arrivals affordable housing is vexing, said Farley.
“Unfortunately, I think in San Francisco there really isn’t a great housing solution,” she said. “In addition to employment, housing is the largest barrier any low-income person, including immigrants, has to navigate.”
More funding needed
What support the Jewish agency can provide to LGBT people resettled to the Bay Area is limited by its funding constraints, said Holly White, its director of grants and communications.
It receives $55,000 in grant funding from HIAS, formerly known as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which has a contract through the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement. Another $14,000 comes from grants provided by the Horizons Foundation, which focuses on LGBT funding needs, and the group Bay Area Physicians for Human Rights.
The money helps pay for a part-time program coordinator, who could easily work full-time, said White. Another need is to hire a mental health clinician, added White, to work specifically with LGBT refugees, who are often suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder due to the trauma they have experienced.
“It is not enough. We do specific fundraising for the LGBT refugee program,” said White, who estimated the agency could easily use another $100,000 to hire additional dedicated staff. “We really need something like a housing employment specialist to help these people find housing and jobs.”
The needs are expected to grow as more LGBT people confront harassment and prejudice in their home countries and seek safety in the U.S.
“We are anticipating more people being open in the refugee application process” about being LGBT, said White, “and getting directed toward us.”
One of the agency’s “biggest goals,” added White, is to rent a 1- or 3-bedroom apartment on a permanent basis where it can house LGBT refugees and asylees and help them establish a new life.
“But in this market that costs a lot of money,” said White.
For the time being, the agency relies on volunteers willing to house a person in a room in their house. It places people in San Francisco as well as Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
“We are desperately looking for help with housing,” said Weiss. “Coming off the plane, for a refugee having a place to live with someone hosting, particularly a gay person, is an incredible gift.”
The agency arranges for the two parties to sign a written rental agreement, and the refugee pays about $200 in rent in order to maintain their government benefits.
“The model we have been using has been working well enough,” said Weiss. “We are able to get people in the door.”
Refugees receive eight months worth of welfare benefits, food stamps, and a little less than $2,000 total, which Weiss said is administered through the agency overseeing their resettlement. The money is meant to cover their first three months in the country, regardless of where they get settled.
“It is not a lot of money,” she noted. “The whole idea is it is not a welfare program to take care of people indefinitely. We are going to get you through the door and up and going on your feet.”
Determined to make a new life for himself, Mayema enrolled in a program that provides free counseling to refugees dealing with trauma. It has proven beneficial he said, even though he remains concerned about his job prospects and housing situation.
“I am trying to focus on the positivity and not thinking I won’t be safe,” said Mayema, who plans to apply for a green card in November. “If you can’t fit in in San Francisco, one of the most gay friendly cities in the world, where are you going to fit in? You need to find your way.”
More community support needed
Yet the government and local LGBT community, said Mayema, could do more to support LGBT refugees and asylees find housing. This fall he may move in with a friend he met who lives in the East Bay or he has thought about moving to Portland as he has heard rents are less expensive there.
“Staying at someone’s house is not what you want,” he said. “There needs to be some housing facility for them.”
Brian Basinger, the founder and director of the AIDS Housing Alliance/San Francisco, called the housing situation for refugees “depressing.” In early 2014 he organized a meeting at the LGBT Community Center to bring together local leaders interested in coordinating a solution.
Although connections were made, Basinger said there is still a need for “a coordinated and collaborative effort to prioritize and address the specific housing needs of asylum seekers and refugees. It is something that needs to happen, definitely.”
He pointed to development agencies focused on specific minority groups, such as the city’s Chinese and Latino communities, as a model for what the LGBT community needs to form. The groundwork has been laid, Basinger noted, by his agency and others focused on housing for LGBT seniors, youth, and people living with HIV or AIDS.
“But we still need a massive LGBT housing organization,” he said. “We have other communities that have housing organizations with tens of millions of dollars in budget and they just do housing.”
Lewis Nightingale, who attended the meeting called by Basinger, agreed. He and his husband hosted a gay man from Turkey seeking asylum for five months in their home while they tried to find him more permanent housing.
“During that time we repeatedly reached out to our social media contacts for someone to offer him the next place or help out or something. We were surprised to receive no response; no one offered,” said Nightingale.
Having befriended several gay Russians in the Bay Area, Nightingale saw how critical the housing needs are especially for LGBT asylum seekers.
“People arrive without warning. They don’t announce before they are coming; they basically show up,” he noted. “We need to have a way to house them, at least temporarily, so they can stabilize their situation.”
Most people he contacted about the issue, said Nightingale, gave him “almost universally negative” advice.
“The reason was twofold, I would say. We already have our own significant population of low-income people and homeless population,” he said. “Also, there was a sense asylum seekers are choosing the most expensive place to come to in the country and it is difficult to raise money for housing in such a market. The advice was to urge them to go elsewhere, somewhere cheaper.”
Undaunted, Nightingale created a Facebook page called ” class=entity>Housing for Asylum Seekers” where people able to can offer temporary housing.
LGBT refugees and asylees are arriving in the city at a time when there already is a need to house thousands of homeless LGBT people, said Basinger, whose agency has worked with six LGBT refugees over the past 11 years.
“I think every LGBT person in the world has a right to experiencing San Francisco values. What it feels like to have social acceptance and be celebrated for who they are. Every human being deserves that,” said Basinger. “But our infrastructure is not in place. We have not invested in our values.”
What is needed, said Workman, is for the local LGBT community to rally in support for LGBT refugees and asylum seekers similar to how it came together to fight AIDS.
“We have no real response to the international persecution of sexual minorities,” he said. “I wish we had a San Francisco response to this as we did to the AIDS crisis. The need is huge.”
Added Weiss, “We are looking to work with anybody who wants to partner with us to help figure this out.”
To donate to or join the Guardian Group, visit its website at http://www.refugeeguardiangroup.org or call Workman at (415) 647-8830.
For information about volunteering with the Jewish services agency, visit its website at http://www.jfcs-eastbay.org/ or call volunteer coordinator Kathryn Winogura at (925) 927-2000.