Bethany teams up with Airbnb for refugee housing in Michigan

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News
Bethany Christian Services and Airbnb are teaming up to offer temporary housing to refugees in extra space provided by residents in west Michigan.

Bethany Christian Services and Airbnb are teaming up to temporarily house refugees with the help of residents in west Michigan. 

Bethany, which works to resettle refugees, and Airbnb, a popular short-term rental company, are asking Michigan residents to offer the extra space in their homes to help refugees transition through Airbnb’s Open Homes program.

Launched two years ago, Open Homes hosts have aided more than 11,000 people who needed temporary housing due to disasters or conflict, or those relocating for health treatment. Since then, it has developed partnerships around the world to find temporary housing for refugees until they find permanent homes. 

Refugees typically stay in host homes for two weeks to a month. The program is entirely donation based; neither the hosts nor partners receive funding.

The United States is on track to take in the fewest number of refugees in four decades, according to U.S. State Department data, and the steep decline is reflected overall in Michigan.

About 570 refugees have resettled in the state in the last seven months. Michigan officials initially expected to take in 1,032 refugees, but 800 is more realistic, said Karen Phillippi, director of the Michigan Office for New Americans. 

Resettlement agencies across Michigan have closed offices due to the shortage of refugees accepted to the country, but Bethany Christian Services, a Grand Rapids nonprofit, is on track to resettle its expected number  this year — 290 — or even surpass it. 

"Refugees often flee their country with minimal supplies, sometimes with just the clothes on their back, and with no access to essential resources like food and shelter," said Chris Palusky, Bethany president and CEO.

The nonprofit has been working with Airbnb since October and has  placed 27 refugees in west Michigan with seven different hosts. It hopes to help at least 20 families through Airbnb within a year.

It's becoming a useful tool case managers rely on, said Kristine Van Noord, manager for Bethany Christian Services' refugee adult and family program.

"Before a refugee comes, we have to have housing set up for them and here in Grand Rapids, there's a decreased availability of affordable housing," Van Noord said. "... And sometimes, we don't get much notice when someone is coming." 

Van Noord said, for example, Bethany staff might be informed on a Wednesday that a refugee family of 12 would arrive on Friday afternoon. Typically, they would spend hours reaching out to churches and others to find a temporary home while they searched for a sizeable permanent home on short notice, she said.

"Our goal is always to place in permanent housing, but when that's not an option, we need somewhere without cost because we have very limited funding," she said. "Airbnb provides another option and it's become our go-to place for an unexpected housing need."

The partnership comes a week after the Michigan faith-based adoption agency was sued for declining to work with same-sex couples. It has since changed its policy to adhere to a state settlement in the case.

►More: Bethany Christian Services changes same-sex foster care, adoption policy

►More: Michigan becomes haven for Congo refugees

"Having seen first-hand the challenges facing refugee families, we’re grateful to Airbnb for initiating its Open Homes program and partnering with Bethany," Palusky said. "Through this partnership, we will be able to offer safe shelter for refugees in west Michigan to help ease their transition."

Van Noord said it's a tangible way for Michigan residents to directly help those in need.

"People always ask, 'what more can we do?' This all started after Hurricane Sandy when a regular host on Airbnb opened her home up to her neighbors whose homes were damaged," Van Noord said. "She charged zero dollars and people thought it was a scam, but she just had a big heart. Airbnb noticed and decided this needs to be an initiative to be accessible for everyone."

Access to extra space can also help families who need  disaster relief or medical stays, the rental company says.

"Whether it’s newlyweds who lost their home in a wildfire, a cancer patient who needs to be closer to specialty care or a family fleeing conflict in their home country — Open Homes lets hosts offer their space for free to people going through a difficult time," according to Airbnb's website.

"Refugees moving to a new city face many challenges," Airbnb said. "Though many of them have the support of a caseworker, stable housing can be hard to come by. Having free, temporary housing gives them peace of mind while they start their new life."

When the International Rescue Committee contacted Susan, an Open Homes host in Denver, about hosting Moussa, a refugee from Iraq, she instantly said yes. The experience was transformative for both of them.

How hosting works

To host, participants need a spare room or guest house, an available bed, basic amenities and toiletries, and availability for two weeks or more. 

The first step is to create a profile about the available space and explain reasons for hosting.

After being approved, hosts wait for a request from one of the nonprofits or evacuees. Nonprofit partners make bookings on behalf of their clients, and they will message if they think the place is a good fit. The host can ask questions, agree on logistics and set expectations about the stay before anything is official.

Hosts work directly with nonprofit partners to figure out how to prepare for the guest’s arrival. The Open Homes Help Center includes links to resources and answers to most questions. 

Van Noord says hosts who offer the service are vetted through extensive screening processes. 

"Airbnb has their background check process with in-depth screenings, as do we," she said. "There are no safety concerns because we make sure refugees are in reputable welcoming homes where they feel safe."
Twitter: @SarahRahal_