They come from Bosnia, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and they step off the plane at Baltimore-Washington International Airport with mixed feelings—relief at their new-found safety, but uncertainty about their future. They are political refugees, fleeing from persecution; they cannot speak the language and though they have skills (some are lawyers and doctors), these skills often are not marketable in this country. But they all arrive with the same questions: How and where will I live? And work? And raise a family?
America has historically, with some interruptions, been hospitable to political refugees; government, sectarian agencies, and private philanthropy have a richly deserved reputation for providing food and clothing to refugees in need. But housing, by its nature, has been always been a more difficult problem to solve—finding, furnishing, paying for and maintaining. And although the local social service agencies have had good success in finding housing for the refugees in the counties surrounding Baltimore, few were locating refugee housing in Baltimore City. In June of 1999, Ed Rutkowski, director of the Patterson Park Community Development Corporation (PPCDC) came forward with a plan not only to help refugees find housing in the city, but at the same time, to help Baltimore City repopulate and stabilize the Patterson Park area.
Translating vision to reality, a representative of a supporting agency meets a refugee or his or her family at the airport and, and where PPCDC housing is appropriate, transports the refugee to an apartment or house in the Patterson Park neighborhood. The rental units will have been furnished largely though donations, and the family then looks to the marketplace for employment. Thom Kolton, community refugee liaison for the PPCDC, speaks to the refugees’ needs: “There are basics to be taken care of—food and clothing and job searches. We not only work with them on these problems, but on the vast cultural problems to overcome. We try to teach them how to be good neighbors—about keeping their units clean and how to relate in a wholesome way with the neighbors. For example, this small thing with large consequences: Not knowing about keeping the shower curtain inside the tub—especially when living on the second floor.” And in the planning stages to provide additional support, is, according to Rutkowski, “a community resource center that will be offering educational, vocational, and social opportunities for self-improvement.”
Resettlement data testify to the program’s success in increasing the numbers of refugees settling into the area served by the PPCDC. Andrew Robarts, regional director of the Baltimore office of the International Rescue Committee, provides numbers: “About 390 refugees have moved through the resettlement process and are living in an area of Patterson Park served by the PPCDC. About 320 remain as residents.”
The Abell Foundation salutes Patterson Park PPCDC for creating a program that addresses the need for housing among refugees arriving in Baltimore, and at the same time, helps repopulate the historic and rebounding community of Patterson Park.