Rubin: At Freedom House — joy, a recount and $390,000
Joy, it turns out, needs no translation.
Word came by phone early Wednesday that the time of peril had passed at Freedom House — that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had reversed itself, and the grant that makes up more than half the shelter’s annual budget would be renewed as of March 31.
There had been a “technical error in scoring,” executive director Deborah Drennan was told. With the recount, the 34-year-old portal to the American Way would in fact receive the $390,841 whose denial had sparked near-panic and then an outpouring of support in the last five weeks.
The lawfully admitted asylum-seekers who pass through the former convent in southwest Detroit — some 1,400 of them in the past decade — would continue to take the first steps there on their way to self-sufficiency and frequently citizenship: legal help, counseling, language classes, job training and anything else that smooths the path to refuge.
Wednesday afternoon, it was time to deliver the good news to the 30 or so adults among the 43 current residents who’ve fled something horrific in their home countries: religious or political persecution, beatings, torture, kidnapping, rape. They had returned from their English classes and gathered in a small room, and an already-bilingual resident repeated Drennan’s welcome into the French many of them spoke in West or Central Africa.
Then Drennan said, “We got the funding. We won our appeal,” and maybe it was her exultation more than her message, but the cheers and clapping and triumphant raising of fists came so quickly the translator didn’t need to say a word.
“The mood in the house had changed,” said Drennan, 61, after a change in priorities at HUD appeared to have put Freedom House in jeopardy. The residents were assured their asylum cases would go forward, but they watched others get turned away.
“They have a connection here,” she said, as do the nonprofit’s thousands of alumni. “They’re doing what they’re supposed to,” and she felt responsible that, suddenly, it wasn’t enough.
Except that now, it is.
The HUD representative she spoke to said that further explanation would arrive by mail. The important thing is that their appeal was successful. The next-most-important thing is that since word spread in mid-February, including in The Detroit News, supporters have made their presence known with cards, letters and all-important checks.
Freedom House collected $300,000, a goodly chunk of its $750,000 annual budget — enough that Drennan is planning to fill 2 1/2 open positions on her small staff, even as she works on keeping the accelerated donations coming.
“Enclosed is my gift of $100 in support of your efforts to assist ‘freedom seekers’ to build a better life for themselves,” one letter said.
A couple in Alabama sent $5,000: “We are so upset about HUD’s decision and can not imagine the panic you have been feeling for the work that is so crucial in our world of hurt and pain.”
Founded by Roman Catholic activists in 1983 when most refugees were fleeing Central American death squads, Freedom House reports that 86 percent of its clients are granted political asylum and 93 percent wind up in permanent independent housing. But its role by definition is transitional housing, which appeared to be what initially put it crosswise with HUD.
As explained by executive director Tasha Gray of the local liaison with HUD, the Homeless Action Network of Detroit (HAND), temporary lodging “is not a priority nationwide.”
HAND supervises HUD’s Continuum of Care funding in Detroit, Hamtramck and Highland Park. It helps coordinate local efforts to attack homelessness and manages the collection of grant applications that requested $24.6 million for 53 projects.
After Freedom House and three other agencies had their applications denied, Gray said Wednesday, “we had sent in a request to provide a formal debriefing, because we wanted to know how they had scored our overall application.”
The other three agencies also appealed and were quickly denied. Gray does not yet know whether her request affected HUD’s recount for Freedom House.
“We’re definitely optimistic we’ll continue to receive funding for homeless programs,” she said. Given the budget blueprint released by President Donald Trump’s administration last week, her concern is what percentage of the current package will survive.
Drennan is likewise bracing for cuts in HUD’s next fiscal year, “having seen the budget and the administration’s overall concern for any human rights.”
Her challenge, she said, is to turn the past month’s donors into sustaining partners. But that’s longer term. Short term Wednesday, she had an important question for a colleague: “Should we have confetti?”
No, came the response, because someone would have to sweep it up. But a celebration was in order.
“Some of our residents have been fasting,” Drennan said, eating only in the evening as a form of prayer for Freedom House. Many looked tense as they found themselves in an unscheduled meeting on a bright, brisk afternoon.
Then came the announcement and the applause, and Drennan’s response.
“Merci beaucoup,” her helper said in turn, and as she finished, more raucous applause broke out.
A volunteer had brought in a celebratory dessert, inscribed “Congratulations Freedom House!” It turns out cake doesn’t need translation, either.