One of a kind house for asylum seekers in Detroit faces uncertain future

Due to potential danger to friends and family, all residents' faces have been intentionally concealed in photographs.

Like every resident of Freedom House, Zaini Itito came to the United States under extreme duress. In 2004, he fled his home country of Togo, a small country in West Africa, during the tail end of Eyadéma Gnassingbé's dictatorial rule.

Itito was fortunate to make his way to Freedom House, a temporary home for asylum seekers located in Southwest Detroit. The nonprofit offers comprehensive care to its residents—room and board, legal aid, English as second language and other classes, behavioral and mental health counseling, job training, transportation, and more. It's the only housing assistance program like it in the United States. And they provide all these services free of charge.

To say Itito's future in America would have been uncertain without Freedom House is a gross understatement. The house only takes indigent survivors—people who, like Itito, have no resources.

"Freedom House gave me everything," says Itito. "It helped me get asylum, find a job. I was able to bring my family to America—my wife and first son. Then we had two more kids. My life is Freedom House."

But now, it's Freedom House's future that's uncertain. The 33-year old organization has been hit by two blows in short succession: the decision by the Department of Housing and Urban Development to cut its funding, and President Donald Trump's executive order banning immigration from seven Muslim-majority countries. The former represents 60 percent of the house's budget; the latter is affecting the morale of the organization and its residents, 95 percent of whom were tortured in their home countries by their own governments. These asylum seekers, who would certainly be detained and possibly killed if forced to return to their home nations, now live in fear of a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Deborah Drennan, executive director of Freedom House
"They come into the house and we promise them they'll be safe here, we'll take care of you," says Deborah Drennan, executive director of Freedom House. "And now it's with some conditions. It's been very hard for them. We've had more outbursts of PTSD and flashbacks. Residents have been getting sicker emotionally and physically."

Up to 40 people can reside at Freedom House at a time while working their way through the lengthy and often painful asylum application process. Last year, they housed 136 residents from 26 countries. 

Upon arrival at the house, which can happen at any time of day, an asylum seeker receives any necessary medical treatment. "We first make sure they're physically and mentally stable," says Drennan. "It's not uncommon for people to have literally escaped jail and be diabetic without access to insulin. Or be pregnant and about to go into labor."

Over the next several days, the legal staff at Freedom House does a "credible fear" assessment to determine why the person fled and start building a case for their asylum status. Then, they wait. It takes eight months to a year to complete the asylum application, which provides the resident with an "alien number" or "a-number" and legal status to be in the country. Approximately six months after that, they get a work permit allowing them to earn income.

Residents cook dinner

But Freedom House's work doesn't end there. Upon leaving the house, they help their residents find a job and temporary housing, of which the former resident pays 30 percent. They provide "intensive case management," according to Drennan, that includes reviewing budgets and bank account statements to improve the likelihood of financial independence. Freedom House claims that 93 percent of their clients achieving stable housing once leaving the program.

Without Freedom House, there's little doubt that number would be substantially lower. These are people who arrive in a completely new country after experiencing a recent trauma. They often speak little to no English. To be granted political asylum, they must navigate a lengthy legal process that can take up to five years. They have no family, no housing, no money. They can't legally work. Freedom House addresses all these needs for no charge.

Despite all the good that Freedom House does and its high success rate, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) still cut off its funding. How could this be?

Through its Continuum of Care program, HUD originally dispensed grants to various housing organizations around the country as part of its strategic 10-year plan to end homelessness. Two of these initiatives proved highly successful: permanent supportive housing for people who suffer from mental illness or disability, and rapid re-housing for those who suffer an unexpected hardship that drives them to homelessness.

The third, transitional housing, is meant as a stopgap and covers the cost of housing for 24 months. In general, transitional housing has proven to be the least effective method for preventing homelessness. As such, HUD de-prioritized funding to these programs. Freedom House is part of this category.

Resident plays guitar

The Homeless Action Network of Detroit
(HAND), the entity that disseminates the final rulings from the CoC board for Detroit, Hamtramck, and Highland Park, released rankings that had Freedom House at 50 out of 53 for housing assistance programs—just below the threshold to receive funds, which takes effect April 1. Until then, Freedom House will have to find other funding sources, or else change their model.

Freedom House makes several arguments for why HUD should continue to fund them. There's the moral case: these are people with no other recourse.

"Helping these people is what the United States stands for," says Drennan. "These are our values: 'Liberty and justice for all.' It's in our Pledge of Allegiance."

"Opening our doors to refugees helps us rediscover our humanity," says Thomas Rogers, program manager at Freedom House. "Because at our core, we all want the same things: love, security, and opportunities to prosper and grow."

Drennan and Rogers also argue that Freedom House residents are the kinds of people America wants as citizens. Asylum seekers are often part of the educated class: journalists, academics, doctors, photographers, government officials.

"They were perceived as a threat by their government," says Rogers. And for that bravery, they were often tortured.

While they appeal HAND's evaluation and seek out alternative sources of funding, Freedom House is also planning for the worst. If nothing changes, they'll have to turn down more asylum seekers, lay people off, change the model, or all of the above.
Interior hallway of Freedom House
"The asylum process takes time," says Drennan. "You can't just fill out an application and send it. You have to compile evidence to support the claim. And we can't guarantee funding for that length of time."

Freedom House will continue to provide support in other ways by helping asylum seekers find alternative temporary housing, fill out applications, or locate similar organizations in Canada. But without comprehensive care, the odds of these people living stably in America is reduced.

Over the years, Itito has worked hard to mollify numerous residents. That's because he's been working at Freedom House as shelter manager for the past decade. He greets new residents, helps with intake, and, because he understands the experience of an asylum seeker, can contribute to their mental well-being.

"When they first come, I put their mind at ease," says Itito. "They see me, a former resident from Africa, and they feel safe. I'm also a French speaker and can explain to them how to live here and give them hope."

With all the anxiety from recent events, Itito's had to work overtime these days.

"Residents are not feeling like we used to," he says. "Everyone's worried about the future. We don't know exactly how we're going to continue. We just need to do our best, continue our job of helping people."

With or without HUD funding, Freedom House will do just that, in whatever capacity they can.

All photos by Nick Hagen

Read more articles by Aaron Mondry.

Aaron Mondry is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Visit his website and follow him on Twitter @AaronMondry.