Ohio Homeless Agencies Struggle With Somali Migrant Influx

Nick Juliano, AP, June 17

COLUMBUS, Ohio—Bags of clothes, toys and other family belongings spill out of lockers along one wall of the shelter, and brightly colored African blouses and wraparound garments are draped over fences outside to air.

From cubicles tucked in a corner of the YWCA Interfaith Hospitality Network shelter, workers contact other poverty-relief agencies. They are trying to find affordable housing and jobs for about a dozen Somali Bantu families who have lived for months in a center designed for stays of only a few weeks.

Experts say Columbus—already home to the nation’s second-largest Somali population—is seeing a wave of secondary migration that is unmatched in other cities. Social service agencies say they were not prepared to deal with the influx.

“It’s a significant strain,” said Angela Plummer, director of the Community Refugee Immigrant Services. “We’re a refugee agency so people go, ‘Here are these refugees, help them.’”

About 200 Somali Bantus have come to Columbus from other U.S. cities in the past six months, seeking jobs and affordable housing they heard earlier immigrants easily found. Most have come from Memphis, Tenn.; Atlanta; Hartford, Conn.; and Chicago, according to interviews with migrants and aid workers by Daniel James Van Lehman, deputy director of the National Somali Bantu Project at Portland State University in Oregon.

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As of Friday, 11 families totaling 82 people—about 40 percent of the new migrants—still were staying at the shelter. They are bused to churches at night to sleep.

“They did overwhelm the system, and they caught people off guard,” Van Lehman said.

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