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Rubin: Detroit’s Freedom House may close

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

The first knock came two Sundays ago at Freedom House, and the second on Tuesday night. The desperate refugees standing on the porch heard something no one ever had before:

Deborah Drennan, Executive Director, Freedom House, speaks of the center on Tuesday February 14, 2017 and it's mission to help clients from around the world.

Sorry. There’s no money to help you.

Freedom House has been helping the helpless since 1983 — asylum-seekers who’ve been beaten or tortured or raped or threatened in their home countries, or knew they were next in line.

Now Freedom House itself is in jeopardy. A change in priorities in recent years at the Department of Housing and Urban Development will cut more than half of the one-of-a-kind shelter’s annual budget as of March 31.

Pending an appeal to HUD, said executive director Deborah Drennan — and pending an increasingly urgent appeal for help locally — Freedom House will have to start shedding staff and eliminating some of the services that make it a one-stop portal to the American way.

Worst case, said Drennan, “no funds come in and we have to close.” Corollary to the worst case: The job is farmed out piecemeal to less specific and encompassing agencies, and “the moral and social compass of the city of Detroit shifts.”

In a contentious time for anything related to immigration and refugees, the 42 current residents of the former convent in Southwest Detroit are increasingly wary, she said. In halting English, a West African resident — names and nations are blurred for the sake of security — said he’s worried about his future, where six months ago when he arrived he was only hopeful.

But the threat to Freedom House stems from the previous administration, not the current one, and from the nature of its mission.

Founded by Roman Catholic activists, Freedom House first assisted Central Americans who had fled death squads during El Salvador’s civil war. Now most in search of asylum come from sub-Saharan Africa or the Middle East.

Unlike refugees hoping to emigrate to the U.S., asylum seekers have already obtained visas. Having found their way to the big brick residence near the Ambassador Bridge, they are offered room and board, legal help, counseling, language classes, job training and anything else that smooths the path to asylum status, productivity and potential citizenship.

Freedom House, represented here by Deborah Drennan, has been helping asylum-seekers since 1983.

Ultimately, Drennan said, 86 percent of them are granted political asylum and 93 percent of them wind up in permanent independent housing. But by definition, Freedom House is transitional — and transitional housing, said executive director Tasha Gray of the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (HAND), “is not a priority nationwide.”

HAND is the supervising agency in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park for Continuum of Care funds from HUD. In short, it helps coordinate the local efforts that help the homeless, and manages a single, comprehensive collection of grant applications that most recently requested $24.6 million for 53 projects.

In its campaign to end homelessness, Gray said, HUD favors the approaches that are the most statistically successful — permanent supportive housing for the disabled or mentally ill, and swift re-housing for those whose homelessness is caused by a hardship or calamity.

“The priorities to HUD are families, youth, and chronic homeless individuals,” she said. “I would say asylum seekers are not fitting in those categories.”

Freedom House requested $390,841, similar to what it’s been awarded before and substantial in a budget of about $750,000.

Along with three other pitches for transitional programs, including one from COTS for victims of domestic abuse, it was rejected.

Freedom House appealed the decision, and if there’s a ray of hope, it’s that no word has come back from HUD. Appeals from the other three local agencies, Gray said, were swiftly denied.

Cass Community Social Services of Detroit had four projects approved, but lost out on its safe haven program for the chronic mentally ill. Numbers don’t always tell the full story, said executive director Faith Fowler, either for her effort or for Freedom House.

“It’s in the right area with good, compassionate people. It’s a good program,” Fowler said. “They’ve been doing good work with a shoestring budget for a long time.”

Drennan, 61, set out to be a nun and wound up building a career in hands-on nonprofits. She’s in her 11th year in a building with resident-crafted artworks of maps and peace signs.

In the past decade, said program director T.J. Rogers, Freedom House has helped 1,394 people from 74 countries. All of them come with a story and none of the stories are joyous.

“When you’re tortured,” Drennan said, “that’s a very intimate thing to share. Can you imagine?”

But the residents tend to bond, and sometimes Drennan likes to stop halfway down the stairs and just “listen to the happiness” — the laughter, the songs, the shrieks of the 2-year-old twins who aren’t even the youngest residents this month.

Many of the residents hold college degrees or even doctorates, she said; the educated are often the greatest threats to repressive governments. Some have left Freedom House and become nurses. Others are now employers.

Drennan has seen fresh scars and heard the midnight wails from internal ones. She has helped people who knew about Freedom House before they left Cameroon or Chad, and had others referred by strangers at distant airports who had compassion and Google.

One woman was simply dropped at the door by a Metro Airport custodian who’d seen her sitting at a boarding gate in the late hours, sipping water from her plastic bottle. He wouldn’t give his name or take money.

“I’m just doing what anybody would do,” he said — and what Drennan hopes to keep doing, as long as she can keep the doors open.

Freedom House accepts donations at freedomhousedetroit.org. The woman residents call “Mom Deb” has been conferring with city council members and spreading the word as best she can.

To this point, the collection plate holds about $16,000. There’s a long way to go, she conceded, but she’s surrounded by people who came a long way already.


Twitter: @nealrubin_dn