Last summer, a military base in New Jersey welcomed 4,000 refugees from Kosovo. Most decided to go back to the Balkans in the end, to piece their lives and country back together. For some of those who decided to settle in New York, though, another harrowing tour awaited–this time through the city’s welfare system.
Katya (not her real name) arrived in New Jersey with her teenage twin daughters and son after fleeing Kosovo when her husband was taken prisoner by the Serbs. She was assigned a case worker at Catholic Charities, a resettlement agency that provides federally funded support and services during refugees’ first few months in the U.S. A $1,080 grant for housing, food and other expenses took the family through its first month in the Bronx. But medical problems, diagnosed by a doctor at Jacobi Medical Center as psychological trauma and hypertension, made it difficult for Katya to find work.
So, armed with a referral letter from Catholic Charities and accompanied by a relative already living in New York, Katya went to a Bronx job center to apply for refugee resettlement cash assistance. Under federal law, that entitled her to eight months of financial support at the same level as a city welfare check.
The confusion that followed is familiar to many poor New Yorkers who rely on the city’s welfare offices to help them through rough times. In broken English, Katya’s relative explained to a job center caseworker that Katya was sick and needed food.
Misunderstanding the standard resettlement agency letter, which explained Katya’s eligibility for public assistance, the caseworker sent Katya around the corner to apply for one month’s worth of emergency food stamps. There, a Human Resources Administration worker told Katya to return with a phone bill and other papers so that the food stamps could begin–instructions Katya did not understand.
“They did not say the magic word: Welfare,” says Sokhear Tan, one of two caseworkers at Catholic Charities who help resettle refugees. “The [HRA] caseworkers don’t explain what is available. They expect the client to say what they need, but they don’t know the vocabulary.” Tan says that short staffing prevented him from going with Katya to the center that day.
Katya never got the food stamps, and by the time she told Catholic Charities about the situation, her case had been closed. The volunteer group is picking up the tab for four months rent and other costs while the family goes through the application process again.
It was never supposed to be like this. The 1996 federal welfare reform law was particularly harsh on immigrants, barring most of them from benefits. But the feds made an exception for those facing persecution, maintaining the safety net of cash and medical benefits that had been helping refugees for decades.
But in some cases, say resettlement workers, their clients aren’t getting the support they need to make a new life. “Cases are closed and not explained in their language,” says Doris Hohman, acting director of migration services at Catholic Charities. Too often, she says, bureaucratic delays, miscommunications between federal and city agencies and misunderstood resettlement policies leave refugees without the funds they need.
Refugees represent 2 percent of HRA’s family caseload and 7 percent of the single adults on public assistance. Yet according to refugee advocates, city welfare workers have little to no information about how to handle refugees. Complains Hohman, “There’s no orientation, and there is no consistent set of policies.”
Snags abound. INS information can take a long time to reach HRA’s computers, making it difficult for some refugees to prove their eligibility for welfare. And confusion reigns regarding work requirements; some welfare offices incorrectly tell refugees that they will not have time to take English classes in addition to their workload, while others tell them, just as misleadingly, that they do not have to work at all. In fact, refugees are held to the same requirements as all welfare recipients.
Of course, refugees also face the same obstacle course as every other applicant. They may wait for a caseworker for hours, only to be told that they must come back a week later because paperwork is missing from their file. They also share other welfare applicants’ frustrations with a dearth of translation services. Last spring, four immigration advocacy groups, with the endorsement of 23 others, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services citing the city’s failure to provide qualified interpreter services for Spanish-speaking welfare clients.
Following an investigation, the HHS’s Office of Civil Rights found that HRA’s job and welfare centers violate federal anti-discrimination laws. In its ruling, the federal agency noted that New York’s public assistance offices often lacked interpreters and failed to translate documents or signs–steps the law requires. The ruling also clarified that under the federal Civil Rights Act, all participants in HHS programs must receive the same treatment and opportunities, meaning that every client who walks into a welfare center must receive explanations of the services available to them in a language they can clearly understand. HHS has rejected state and city proposals for adding translation services and is now in the process of drafting its own plan.
The confusion denies essential resources to a vulnerable group of people. While private refugee resettlement agencies say that their first goal is to help refugees find jobs, the reality is that almost half of New York’s refugees rely on some form of public assistance. Though numbers vary widely among immigrant groups–66 percent of Southeast Asian refugees, compared with 13 percent of Eastern Europeans–42 percent of all refugees statewide collected welfare in the mid 1990s.
Providing resettlement services to 2,900 refugees last year alone, the New York Association for New Americans is well aware of how inadequately the welfare bureaucracy serves its clients. Even before the Giuliani administration set out to discourage applicants for public assistance, the 50-year-old agency helped draft a proposal to take the refugee business out of the city’s hands. The agency wanted to handle case management itself, without having its clients deal with HRA at all. The idea, says NYANA Executive Vice President Mark Handleman, was to “offer better results to move people to employment.”
The plan was never implemented. But NYANA has pressed on, and it looks like it might finally prevail. HRA confirms that it has been talking about opening a welfare office at 17 Battery Place, NYANA’s headquarters. The agency is hardly out of favor at the welfare agency: This winter, it was awarded a $12.4 million job-training contract.
And the picture may soon get brighter for all refugees with the February debut of HRA’s new refugee resettlement office. Its director, Toyo Biddle, is no newcomer to these issues; as director of the federal Office of Refugee Resettlement for 19 years, she was one of the authors of the regulations guaranteeing public assistance for refugees. An agency spokesperson describes the creation of the office as an extension of HRA’s specialized services for people with special needs, including those dealing with AIDS, disabilities and domestic violence.
Welfare rights watchdog Liz Krueger of the Community Food Resource Center commends HRA for realizing that “one size usually fits none” and providing such specialized oversight. However, she observes, the city’s welfare clients are “a universe of many, many specialized populations,” all of whom need more comprehensive assistance. “I want to raise the standard for everybody,” she says.
Catholic Charities’ Doris Hohman recently learned of the new appointment after making a call to HRA to find out what was going on with city and state efforts to provide public assistance to refugees. Describing Biddle as a positive addition, she says, “At least there’s an avenue now for these discussions.”
Hohman believes Biddle has a colossal task ahead of her. Until some real coordination takes place among resettlement agencies and government offices, she contends, refugees will continue to suffer lapses in support. “It’s one of these falling between the cracks Catch-22 situations,” Hohman maintains. “I mean, it’s a challenge to most Americans.”