IRC's Regional Director for U.S. Programs Mireille Cronin Mather, right, speaks with KPBS Reporter Tarryn Mento on Nov. 21, 2017. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

A recent KPBS investigation found some refugees resettled in San Diego were at risk of losing their homes because staff from the local chapter of the International Rescue Committee placed them in apartments that were too small for their families. Four families were asked to leave by their landlord because of the practice.

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This is a follow to our coverage on the struggles refugees face when they make San Diego County their home. The stories are a collaboration involving reporters, photographers, videographers and editors at inewsource, KPBS and the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. Why this topic? Since 2009, more than 23,000 refugees have settled in the county, more than any other region in California.

The local office initially denied the claims, which had been fact-checked by KPBS media partner inewsource. But agency leadership later confirmed finding that housing placement practices in San Diego were “inconsistent” with its policies. The organization, which relies on federal dollars for its resettlement program, has since launched a search for a new local executive director.

To learn how the agency is moving forward after the findings, KPBS reporter Tarryn Mento spoke with the IRC’s regional director for U.S. programs, Mireille Cronin Mather, who is now acting executive director in San Diego.

Q: What happened after the International Rescue Committee was made aware of the findings in our report?

A: After we were made aware of the findings of your report, we launched a full internal investigation into the practices that were happening here. That entailed interviews, and case file review, email review — so quite rigorous. We did confirm that the practice was happening in isolated incidences here. Of the 2,200 refugees that we had resettled in the last couple of years, we found that 24 families were impacted by this isolated practice.

Q: How are you working to assist them?

A: Immediately after the investigation confirmed that there were some of these practices and we identified these families, we reached out to each of these families to do a home visit with them to explain the situation and their options and what support they may want from us that we could provide. Of those 24, we did 18 home visits. Six families — three did not want a home visit and three we couldn’t contact despite several efforts and different points of communication.

Q: So 18 families, what is happening with them now?

A: A few of the families did want to move their housing location and so we supported them with that. The rest were happy where they were. But also, whenever we do a home visit, we also talk about what else is going on with the family, additional support that they need. For all of the families, if we were able to offer — whether it was employment assistance or school supplies or referrals for health issues — that’s what we do, and that’s what we did with these families.”

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Q: Can you be more specific about what kind of support? Was it financial support? Was it searching for homes online?

A: Well, it ranged. It depended on what the family wanted because we always defer to what the family wants and needs. For some of them, we did offer some assistance in finding new locations. We have great contacts with property managers. We’re able to do that where the inventory is available. And then logistics for moving, things like that.

Q: Since our initial report and your own findings, you’ve made some staffing changes. The executive director is now no longer with your agency. How was that decision made and who made it?

A: Well, the executive director decided to leave the organization, and so we are excited to be receiving a new executive director who will be starting in mid-January. We haven’t quite made the public announcement yet, but we know that she’s going to be a terrific fit for this office and for the community. She’s coming back to California.

Three beds fill one bedroom shared by six children in a two-bedroom El Cajon apartment, July 25, 2017. (Megan Wood, inewsource)
Three beds fill one bedroom shared by six children in a two-bedroom El Cajon apartment, July 25, 2017. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

Q: You said that in one of your statements that you have since done a review on housing policies with your staff. What did that review entail?

A: We have experts in our Reception and Placement Program who have been working in resettlement for decades, and are always looking to make improvements. We consider ourselves a learning organization. We always want to do better by our clients and our staff and our organization as a whole. One of our sessions was our experts came in and did a session with our staff and to review: What are our obligations to refugees? What are the best practices? How can we adapt when we need to to make sure that refugees are resettled in the best environment? So that face-to-face training, as well as written guidelines.

We’ve also looked at the size of families that we resettle here in San Diego. The housing situation is pretty challenging for everyone here, especially for bigger families who can only really afford apartments and not necessarily a house with adequate space. So we are looking for the size of families that we welcome here in San Diego if they don’t already have a family or friend who’s here.

Q: How has the resettlement of refugees in San Diego changed since talking about the things that we found in our report?

A: Yeah, that’s one of the changes, that we are reviewing family size and seeing, according to the housing inventory, what size can really thrive here. We work with all of our families to stabilize (them), get their first jobs. We have a wide range of programs. It’s not just receiving them when they first come, but we work with refugees up to five years and beyond because of the adaptation of their new environment, the language acquisition, the learning of new skills to be employed through jobs that will really provide for their families. It’s all tough for refugees coming from different cultures and environments and so we want to make sure that, based on all those opportunities that there are here for refugees, but also that it’s the right fit in terms of the economic environment.

Q: Some of the families that we interviewed — we interviewed seven — some of them, not all, said that they were specifically directed by the caseworker to sign a lease that didn’t accurately list every member of their family. How is the IRC addressing the issue of caseworkers who might have coached families to lie?

A: Through our investigation and in our follow-up, we have directly addressed that with staff and made it very clear that despite their best of intentions for these families — and we know that they were coming from a really good place and dedication to assisting these refugees in this life-saving program, you know without this program refugees would stay in limbo in displacement overseas or still be at risk of losing their lives where they are. We knew our staff have the best of intentions of helping to save these families, but those types of practices put a lot of things at risk, and they’ve been made very clear that that can’t continue. We’re going to continue to monitor that. I firmly believe that they understand those risks now and that the practice is not continuing and we continue to monitor it and make other adjustments too, like looking at family sizes too, so those housing challenges aren’t quite as great.

A refugee family shared its rental documents for an apartment at Sunset Gardens in El Cajon. Identifying information has been redacted. (Megan Wood/inewsource)
A refugee family shared its rental documents for an apartment at Sunset Gardens in El Cajon. Identifying information has been redacted. (Megan Wood/inewsource)

Q: What tactics are you employing to find affordable housing?

A: One of the things we’re doing is diversifying our housing locations. It’s a little bit based on the population that are coming in. Of course, El Cajon has received Iraqi refugees for many, many decades and was a great place for Syrians to come because if, mostly, the language capacities there and a bit of the cultural affinities too. But (we’re) looking at other areas of San Diego County where there might be affordable housing, but also good access to schools, jobs, is what we’re doing now.

Q: How are the Trump administration policies affecting resettlement on the ground in San Diego?

A: In my region, across the board. all of the offices have been heavily impacted just in this year, numbers that have come through the system. The travel ban was extended for 90 days for 11 countries where our refugees primarily come from. That in itself has slowed arrivals to a trickle here, literally. I think we had 27 arrivals last month, when our average is more around closer to 100 in healthier pipeline years.

We continue to push our assurances. We hope that after this continued ban right now is lifted and the program, we hope, starts up again. It will take some time. There are some additional security measures that the State Department and Department of Homeland Security are putting in place, so they can’t just turn on a switch and start it again, people have to be trained. In some cases, the security review process of people that have been approved, they might’ve expired, so they might have to start over.

This coming year we’re very, very concerned that of the 45,000 that have been determined by the president to be allowed to come in, which is a stark contrast to the 110,000 that Obama had approved, that all of those 45,000 actually come in. Because the administration is essentially trying to strangle the program through bureaucracy, and the ‘Muslim ban’ continues.

But that being said, we work with thousands and thousands of refugees who have already arrived here. We served closed to 10,000 people this last year through the variety of our programs. We know that the resettlement journey takes a long time for people to adapt to their new environments. Not because they aren’t feeling welcome, because San Diego County is a very welcoming community. Not because they aren’t acculturating well, it’s just that learning the language and starting a new job can be challenging, so there are many, many refugees that we continue to support here.

Q: You mentioned that San Diego is a welcoming community. Since the Trump administration’s policies, have you seen a measurable impact locally in terms of donations or volunteers?

A: We’ve had double the number of donors, and I would say probably 2½ times the number of volunteers that are working with our office. As the federal support decreases, though, that support is valued and needed more than ever.

Q: Are there any questions that I didn’t ask or any topics we didn’t discuss that you think are important?

A: I think the key is just to emphasize that despite the policies and actions of the administration, which we continue to educate our leaders on the importance of this program, that there are still many, many refugees here. If people want to support and welcome those communities, they can be a friend. They can be a family mentor. They can also speak for refugees by calling their local and national elected officials to tell them that they support the refugee program.

More in the series …

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[one_third]Physician models of feet help people with diabetes understand the impact of the disease on blood flow to their lower limbs. (Megan Wood, inewsource)[/one_third]

[two_third_last]Falsified documents leave San Diego refugees vulnerable
July 27, 2017
Refugees say resettlement workers put them at risk of losing their homes because falsified lease documents omitted occupants.[/two_third_last]

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[one_third]Physician models of feet help people with diabetes understand the impact of the disease on blood flow to their lower limbs. (Megan Wood, inewsource)[/one_third]

[two_third_last]Trauma and transitions: How San Diego schools grapple with educating refugees
Aug. 28, 2017
Thousands of refugees resettled in San Diego County last year, putting pressure on schools to deal with the unique needs of more newcomers than ever before.[/two_third_last]

Tarryn Mento is the health reporter for KPBS. She has reported from three countries and in two languages. Her work has been published by The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity’s iWatch News, and El Nuevo Herald. Prior to serving as KPBS' health reporter, Tarryn was the multimedia producer...