The Last Place on Earth

Paul Demko, City Pages (Minneapolis), Jan. 18, 2006

Chue Yang arrived in the united states in July 2004. The 40-year-old married father of six initially settled his family in Atlanta with the help of his wife’s relatives. He had spent the prior 26 years living in Hmong refugee camps in Thailand. Yang had little work experience, had never driven a car, and could speak almost no English.

Last January, Yang and his family relocated to Minnesota, where the bulk of his relatives live. The eight-person family moved into a two-bedroom apartment in north Minneapolis that cost $665 a month, not including utilities. With no one in the household working, and just a welfare check to support them, the bills quickly piled up. Yang says that he borrowed at least $3,000 from relatives to feed and shelter his family.

Finally in August, unable to keep up with his bills, Yang moved his family to Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter in north Minneapolis, just off Olson Highway. The family now shares a two-bedroom apartment in the 92-unit facility. “I just need a place to save some money and pay off my bills,” Yang says on a recent weekday afternoon, speaking through a translator at Mary’s Place. He wears a white dress shirt and black pants that are too big for his stocky, barely five-foot frame. “We’re happy to be here. When we came from Thailand we didn’t have anything.”

Yang has recently secured a job, working 30 hours a week as a janitor for $8 an hour. “It’s a job,” he responds when asked how he likes the work. But he’s uncertain when—or if—he’ll have the financial resources to move his family into their own residence.

Yang’s family was among the first Hmong refugees to show up at Mary’s Place seeking help. At the beginning of July there wasn’t a single Hmong resident at the facility, run by the nonprofit group Sharing & Caring Hands. But in the ensuing months, as word has spread in the refugee community, families have been arriving at an alarming clip. As of last week, there were 221 Hmong residents at Mary’s Place—157 of them children. The overwhelming majority of them are among the roughly 5,000 Hmong people who have settled in Minnesota during the last two years, following the closure of the last refugee camp in Thailand.

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“More and more are being evicted,” adds Mary Jo Copeland, the founder of Sharing & Caring Hands, speaking of the refugees. “I see the eviction notices on all these people. It’s just incredible.” Copeland notes that the organization has also seen a huge spike in the number of Hmong people coming to Sharing & Caring Hands to pick up free clothing. “They don’t have any coats,” she says. “They don’t have any shoes.”

The situation at Mary’s Place is just one facet of an emerging housing crisis among recent Hmong refugees. Few have viable job skills or speak English. Many are running up debts to relatives or living in squalid, overcrowded conditions.

Youa Vang, a 36-year-old married mother of seven, arrived in Minnesota in November 2004. At first, she says, her family shared a two-bedroom apartment in north Minneapolis with broken windows, a furnace that seldom worked, and numerous cockroaches. The rent was $700. No one in her household has a job. They moved to Mary’s Place in September. Vang is bewildered by her new country. “Everything has to do with writing, reading, and money,” she says, speaking through a translator, her faced lined with wrinkles that belie her age. “Thailand and Laos are different situations.”

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In December 2003, the U.S. and Thai governments announced an agreement to close the final Hmong refugee camp, known as Wat Tham Krabok, and resettle the families in this country. At the time there were roughly 14,500 people living in the camp, which surrounded a Buddhist monastery.

Many Hmong fought on the side of the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Fearing persecution after the U.S. withdrawal, hundreds of thousands fled to Thailand. But they were deemed illegal immigrants by the Thai government and restricted to refugee camps. Starting in the late ‘70s, waves of these refugees have made their way to the U.S. Today it’s estimated that there are 250,000 people of Hmong heritage across the country.

Starting with an initial influx of roughly 60 refugees in 1976, the Twin Cities gradually attracted the largest Hmong population in the country. A 2004 report by the Minnesota State Demographic Center estimated that there are 60,000 Hmong residents in the state. Therefore it was immediately evident that a significant chunk of the refugees from Wat Tham Krabok would ultimately end up settling in this area. Initial estimates predicted that the state would see an influx of 5,000 additional residents.

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