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Minnesota orgs look to find housing as number of asylum seeking families reaches all-time high

Minneapolis to add more resources for asylum seekers
Minneapolis to add more resources for asylum seekers 03:06

MINNEAPOLIS — Organizations that help refugee families find a roof over their heads in Minnesota are bracing for that need to grow in 2024.

Other major cities in the U.S., like Chicago, have seen their resources overwhelmed by busloads of people seeking asylum. Most come from countries in Central and South America by way of Mexico. The Twin Cities hasn't reached a critical level of new arrivals of refugees like Chicago, but the number is increasing.

The festive feel in a humble St. Paul house is helping it feel more like a home.

"This is a home where right now, three asylum seeking women and a baby live. They have their life together," said Bethany Ringdal.

She leads the local chapter of the International Association for Refugees (IAFR). The organization has a program called Jonathan House in which three homes in the Twin Cities house refugees. They stay on average for 18 months in hopes of starting a new life in the U.S.

The approval process for asylum seekers is a logistical journey but likely not as arduous as the one they took to get here.

"Almost all of our friends living in this house and other Jonathan House locations are survivors of torture," said Ringdal. "People are trying to come here not for fun, not for a great American adventure, but to save their lives."

Syracuse University tracks the number of pending cases of people seeking asylum.

Minnesota's immigration court at Ft. Snelling has nearly 12,867 cases as of Friday. The highest numbers come from Ecuador (1,920), Guatemala (1,634), and Somalia (1,207).

"That 12,000+ is through one of the asylum routes. And also, it takes a while for that data to catch up and there are many more people on their way every month," said Ringdal. She thinks the number of active cases is likely closer to 16,000 in the state. Getting approval can take up to four years, said Ringdal. That means a large portion of the pending cases are for people who arrived before 2023.

While the number might appear high, it pales in comparison to what's happening in several cities across the country.

In Chicago, buses continue to bring more families seeking asylum from the US-Mexico border. More than 14,000 people there are staying in shelters, tents, and even the airport. Since 2022, more than 34,000 migrants have arrived in Chicago.

David Hewitt is the Director of Housing Stability in Hennepin County.

He said while our region hasn't seen the volume of migrants like Chicago, Denver, or New York. But that doesn't mean the number locally isn't rising.

"Our shelter all policy is a simple principal that we apply across the board that no child should sleep outside, irrespective of country of origin or whatever brings you to that point of crisis," said Hewitt.

Hennepin County is helping 491 families find shelter, totaling more than 1,600 people. It's an all-time high number for the county. Hewitt said about 900 of them are children. Most of the families are seeking asylum.

"Over the last six months, we've been in a position we've never been in before where actually demand, even with us increasing daily, demand sometimes exceeds supply," he said. The shift started in November 2022. Hewitt said that's when they noticed more and more refugee families needing shelter compared to people who are US residents. 

To meet that increasing demand, Hennepin County is increasing its family shelter budget. Hewitt said it was $9.5 million dollars last year. In 2024, it has more than doubled to $22.5 million.

"We don't see shelter as a place for people to live. It's there for emergency and our goal is to help people move onto other housing opportunities," said Hewitt.

Beyond housing, the county helps immigrant families find schooling for their children, provides health and dental clinics, and connect them with resources as they work through immigration proceedings.

It also works with organizations similar to ICFR to find more stable housing. Ringdal though said her team is feeling the strain. They regularly turn people away since their housing capacity quickly gets maxed out. Despite the struggles, it's a burden that Ringdal is determined to carry.

"They've been through something nobody should have to go through and they need a hand and they need a community to help them get started in a new place," she said.

Ringdal believes Minnesota's established immigrant community deserves praise. She said family and friends have allowed asylum seekers into their homes, helping ease the stress on local shelters.

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