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Detroit’s safe haven for asylum seekers gets reprieve from federal government

Mar 22, 2017

It was a close call for Freedom House, the one-of-a-kind Detroit shelter that provides housing, legal aid and a host of other services to help asylum seekers.

Its doors were in danger of closing after its annual grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) was slashed by more than half.

The future of Freedom House was cloudy, even as the organization began some fruitful fundraising from the community. 

But today the staff at Freedom House is breathing a little easier.

HUD approved the organization's full grant for this fiscal year. That means the shelter's doors will remain open for those seeking asylum in Michigan.

"An asylum seeker is a refugee," said Deborah Drennan, executive director of Freedom House. "It fits under the same definition. However, when you think of resettled refugees...those are people who have been vetted and then approved abroad to come to the United States."

Asylum seekers are different. Drennan said they're refugees seeking protection while on American soil.

"They come with a visa, so they've been vetted, but they don't have a social security number," she said. "And because of that, they're not eligible for any mainstream benefits."

Without a social security number, you can't get a job in the United States. And as an asylum seeker, it is illegal to earn money until you've been fully approved. That makes life complicated for asylum seekers as the whole process can take up to 18 months.

That's where Freedom House comes in. 

The shelter helps asylum seekers by providing job training, employment readiness, housing and English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. It also provides medical and behavioral health care, as some asylum seekers have been tortured or abused in their home countries. Freedom House also has lawyers on staff to help with any legal issues. 

The shelter originally lost its funding because HUD, in recent years, has de-prioritized funding for transitional housing. That's because permanent housing models are often better at eliminating homelessness.

But Drennan said transitional housing does work for some populations. Just look at Freedom House's success rate.

94% of Freedom House residents exit the program into permanent housing. That means a large majority succeed in avoiding homelessness after leaving Freedom House.

Listen to the full interview above to hear "Susan's" story. She's an asylum seeker currently living at Freedom House. She went by the name "Susan" throughout the course of the interview to protect her identity.

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