The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 24, 2012

Tailoring place-based services to immigrant families in Portland, Oregon

August 24, 2012

Achieving economic stability in today’s economy is hard enough. For immigrants, it can be even harder as they often experience the added challenges of mastering English-language skills, overcoming very low levels of education, and adapting to American financial institutions. In Portland, Oregon, case managers from the local housing authority (called Home Forward) are helping newly arrived immigrants overcome these barriers and move their families forward. These services, provided to clients in Portland’s New Columbia housing development, are offered as part of the Housing Opportunity and Services Together demonstration (HOST)—a multicity project seeking to improve the lives of vulnerable families living in public housing communities.

When refugees time out of resettlement assistance after five years, they must often turn to mainstream agencies, such as the local workforce investment board, even if their needs require more intensive support. One case manager at New Columbia, a former refugee himself, is picking up the baton for these “timed-out” clients. He not only provides the one-on-one support they need, but has also reached out to Africa House, the local refugee resettlement agency, to gain access to their network of employers and offer concrete job opportunities to his clients.

Another New Columbia case manager, who works closely with many Latin American immigrants and their families, is also thinking outside the box. As an immigrant from Mexico, he understands the difficulty immigrants often have accessing traditional employment opportunities. He recently started referring his clients to business development training at Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC). The culturally specific, 30-hour training program, called “Arrancando Mi Negocio” (Getting my Business Started), culminates in a formal presentation of the participant’s business plan. Graduates will have learned the fundamentals needed to launch their own microbusinesses and can sell their goods and services at stalls in the CDC’s own marketplace. The case manager also goes the extra mile to help his families navigate complicated immigration processes. To date, four families have gained permanent residency with the help of his advocacy. And the case manager is already assisting young people applying for “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” the Obama administration’s new Department of Homeland Security program that provides an opportunity for undocumented youth under age 16 to defer deportation, receive employment authorization, and in some cases, apply for in-state college tuition.

Both case managers have also worked hard to bring culturally appropriate financial education to New Columbia. Classes are taught in clients’ native languages by teachers who understand the students’ traditions and beliefs. For example, Muslims are prohibited by their religion from earning interest and often have difficulty establishing credit in theUnited States. Knowing this, New Columbia case managers worked with the nonprofit providing the classes (Innovative Changes), to shape the curriculum and develop alternative credit-building strategies for these families.

Immigrant families share many challenges, but have different needs. HOST case managers in Portland are proving that taking the time to understand these families’ specific needs and tailor programs appropriately can really make a difference.

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