With no help in place, refugees pay too much for shelter

Posted by admin on Mar 25th, 2011

By Kim Pemberton, Vancouver Sun March 25, 2011

Ninety per cent of the more than 1,000 asylum seekers arriving each year in Metro Vancouver are on their own when it comes to finding a place to live, and many of those end up in housing that is too expensive for their incomes and below national standards for occupancy, experts say. “One of the problems is their temporary status. Their social insurance number begins with a nine and all employers know that means they are temporary so while they can be legally entitled to work they often can’t get a job. If you can’t get a job you can’t get decent housing,” said University of B.C. research assistant Jenny Francis, who authored a paper entitled Precarious Housing and Hidden Homelessness Among Refugees, Asylum Seekers, and new Immigrants in Metro Vancouver. Her paper will be presented at the four-day National Metropolis Conference, which starts today at the Sheraton Wall Centre and focuses this year on immigration.

“That temporary status can last years and years. They’re the most frightened. They’re the ones who could be rejected. They’re the ones often running from dangerous situations and worried authorities back home might come here to get them,” said Francis.

She said it’s not uncommon for the wait to be three to five years.

“They’re usually here alone, separated from their families and to be separated from your kids for more than five years is stressful and depressing for parents. They end up spending all their money on phone cards and to pay for their lives back home and their housing here,” she said.

According to a national study, published last fall in the Canadian Issues Journal, housing is considered affordable if it accounts for 30 per cent of monthly household income. But the study found the majority of refugees are spending well above what is considered a high-risk level of their earnings for shelter, meaning they are on the brink of homelessness.

Francis’s study found nearly half of refugee claimants in Vancouver spent between 51 per cent and 100 per cent of their income on housing. Only 15 per cent spent less than 30 per cent of their income on housing.

Nationwide, there is little or no housing support for refugee claimants. For those who arrive knowing no one and are not aware of their rights, they are vulnerable to being taken advantage of by unscrupulous landlords.

Such was the case with Kombii Nanjalah, who arrived in Vancouver in 2006 but didn’t have her refugee claim accepted until November 2008. Nanjalah, who was fleeing an abusive husband in Kenya, said she struggled to find housing and stayed in a homeless shelter run by the Salvation Army during her first few weeks. Afterward, she ended up sharing a small two bedroom home in Burnaby with two women — one with developmental and physical disabilities and the other was a person she met on Hastings Street.

She said initially the landlord wanted to rent the one-bedroom basement suite in the home for $700 to the three women.

“It was dirty and had rats,” she said. They were able to convince him to let them take the upstairs, but he insisted they also rent the basement so they ended up paying $1,500 a month.

Her $500 portion was more than her $320-a-month housing allowance, so she had to use money that would have gone to food and other incidentals to pay the rent.

“We had nothing. We only had blankets and slept on the floor. I didn’t know where to go to get beds or any help,” she said.

They stayed five months and then found a cheaper two-bedroom home nearby for $850 a month. Nanjalah is still there, but instead of roommates she now shares the house with two grown sons, ages 24 and 23. She is sponsoring them and a third son, aged 20, who is expected to arrive in mid-May, when he completes his university degree in Kenya.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there were 106,222 refugee claimants living in Canada in 2009. The number that arrived in Vancouver that year was 1,137, which in addition to those already living in Vancouver, brought the total to 3,233.

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