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National Relief Group Finds San Diego Office Violated Policies In Housing Refugees

A refugee family displayed on a coffee table its rental documents for an apartment at Sunset Gardens in El Cajon, Aug. 1, 2017. (Some identifying information has been redacted.)
Megan Wood
A refugee family displayed on a coffee table its rental documents for an apartment at Sunset Gardens in El Cajon, Aug. 1, 2017. (Some identifying information has been redacted.)
National Relief Group Confirms Problems With Refugee Placements In San Diego
National Relief Group Confirms Problems With Refugee Placements In San Diego GUEST:Tarryn Mento, Speak City Heights reporter, KPBS News

The international rescue committee is one of the premier agencies involved in resettling refugees. They helped thousands of refugees begin new lives in San Diego. San Diego has been one of the areas to receive the largest number of refugees because of the support networks that is created over the years. Because of our county affordable housing shortage, it is becoming difficult to find places for the new residents to live. That is where a Investigative report began to find problems with the way the local IRC was placing refugees. Now, the headquarters has acknowledged there are issues they need to correct. Joining me is -- is Tarryn Mento. Welcome . I remember this story when you started to hear from refugee families saying they were asked to leave the new residences. Tell us what you uncovered. It started with one family that was asked to leave and did not know where to go. From that interview, they said I know many more people in that situation. They had more people living in their apartment. There was a family of seven and had six people on the lease. That is a problem. The first is, the lease says that anyone not listed as a resident could be considered a material violation which resulted them being asked to leave. And while I -- violates the guidelines that they said it follow. That is the occupancy limits. Did refugee families say they knew that there were too many people in these units? How did that happen We talked to seven families in total. Some said the are your see directly told me, we are putting this number of members on the lease. You are this number but we are not finding homes for you that you can afford. Do not let them know that you have this many people. Others said I was told to sign a lease and I did not know what it said. What ended up happening? There are three families in one apartment complex that switched management and they reviewed the leases. Three families were asked to leave. Since KBS acquired, they said they will not force the families to leave within the 30 days, but they will allow them to stay until they leave home. The other was asked to leave. There were community members that assisted them and they are able to find a larger apartment. Three families are still in the same situation the last time we checked. One of the older children moved out so that situation resolved itself but there are other families that still do not know if they will be asked to leave because the numbers are still larger than what it says on release What did you discover about why members of the IRC would do this? But actually, I talked to a researcher who focused on resettlement for the better part of the decade. This is what she had to say. It that the solution that they had to offer to the families, and we are not given the workers enough resources to work up with. Reminder remind us how much they have to work with when it comes to resettling refugee families. For each person, the IRC receive a bout $1000. A family of six would get $6000 and so on. You know, if you are looking at apartments that are large enough for a family of seven, which would be a three bedroom, those are much higher than the budget will go and it is supposed to cover clothing, food and needs when they go back to school and the furniture. I mean, resettlement workers have a very strict list of items that the State Department says has to be in every apartment. You have to have a certain amount of glasses and laundry detergent per person. They are very restricted to what they have to provide with the limited funds except the limited funds are for a limited time as well ? Yes. It is called the reception and replacement program. It is supposed to stretch from the first 30 to 90 days. It does not go as far as 90 days to use the fund but some families do need help all the way up through 90 days. Some are living in a motel because it is difficult to find housing and they are living in a motel for more than a month. You need 90 day assistance in San Diego. The national IRC has acknowledged that it has found problems with the way the San Diego branch was placing families in housing. What is the national IRC doing ? It took steps -- I am trying to think of the exact wording, to enforce housing related policies with local staff. That came from the IRC. We put in a request to learn more. They also said they are taking steps to support families that may have been affected and they are in the process of checking to see if they have been contacted by the IRC and what assistance they are receiving. Before you were able to speak with them, you do not know if they are thinking about offering a stipend or different housing I am not certain. Just because of the way the funds work, the funds cannot be used for families past 90 days but the resettlement agencies do get other funding from private donors so we do not know exactly how they would find assistance or what assistance they would be providing. I have been speaking with Tarryn Mento . Thank you. Thank you.

The national headquarters of the International Rescue Committee says it has found problems with the way its San Diego branch placed refugees in homes. The announcement follows a KPBS investigation into allegations that refugees were told to sign falsified rental documents to get their large families into apartments.

Seven refugee families resettled in San Diego late last year told KPBS that local IRC staffers placed them in apartments that occupancy guidelines say were too small. Some of them said they knew family members’ names had been omitted from the leases, while others didn’t realize that had happened.

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According to the rental documents, too many occupants could be considered a material violation of the agreements. Four families were asked to leave their homes because of too many people. The local IRC office initially denied coaching families to lie.

In a statement to KPBS Tuesday, the IRC's national office in New York said: "We unfortunately have identified housing placement practices in San Diego which were inconsistent with the IRC’s policies and code of conduct. In response, we have taken steps to reinforce housing-related policies and practices with local staff and we have engaged with and are supporting families who may have been impacted."

KPBS repeatedly requested a phone interview with the IRC’s national office to learn more about its findings and how it was helping families, but the agency declined. San Diego IRC Executive Director David Murphy has also not responded to requests for comment.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, which awards federal dollars to resettlement agencies, said in an email that the agency was satisfied with the measures taken by the IRC.

“The State Department requested that IRC conduct a thorough investigation into the allegations, and they have communicated to us that they have taken appropriate action to ‎ensure that all refugees resettled through IRC in San Diego are served in full compliance with all relevant programs, guidelines, and codes,” the spokeswoman said.

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KPBS reached out to the seven families it previously interviewed. One family said it has not been contacted by the IRC and was turned down when it previously contacted the local office for assistance. A second said the IRC also declined to help the family search for a new place. That family is now looking to move to Oregon. A third family said it was contacted by the IRC and was open to assistance, but told the staff member that it felt the organization was untrustworthy.

A fourth family said it did receive help from the IRC, which located a three-bedroom with a six-month lease, but the family worried it was too temporary.

A State Department spokeswoman said on Thursday that the agency is in contact with the IRC about the refugees’ needs for assistance.

The families arrived last year during a surge of refugees in San Diego. The wave forced IRC staffers to rapidly find homes for refugees on limited means in one of the nation’s tightest and most expensive rental markets.

Corrected: February 1, 2023 at 7:30 AM PST
Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect developments since its initial posting on Sept. 6. Additionally, in a follow-up interview, one family clarified its response when it was contacted by IRC.