Study may translate into opportunities
Study may translate into opportunities BY PAULA WOLF, Staff Writer
Suppose you and your family wanted to buy a starter home.
But the documents you had to sift through to realize that dream were written in French. Or German. Or Polish.
Such a prospect would be incredibly intimidating to anyone not fluent in those languages. So just imagine what it's like for refugees in Lancaster County who haven't mastered English.
Seeking to improve the ability of refugees and immigrants to navigate the homebuying and renting process, the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership recently completed a language and fair-housing study that identified the languages -- other than English and Spanish -- spoken by the most vulnerable populations.
The next step is to translate housing-related documents into those tongues --including Arabic, Burmese, Karen, Nepali and Vietnamese.
LHOP contracted with Millersville University's Nonprofit Resource Network to complete the study, conducted November-December of last year.
The idea came about when the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission contacted the Lancaster Housing Opportunity Partnership because it knew of federal grant money available to promote fair housing, said Nathan Roth, LHOP's fair housing director.
The grant LHOP received from the Department of Housing and Urban Development is $129,514, he said. Numerous community agencies also took part in the study, which included interviews with refugees and immigrants and the people who work with them, Roth said.
The research is unique because it doesn't just look at who the newcomers are, he said, but at "which are the most vulnerable when it comes to fair housing."
The study focuses on "who the people are who really need to be reached most aggressively," Roth said.
Several factors were taken into account when determining vulnerability, he said, including how long the refugees and immigrants were in Lancaster County; whether they were proficient in English; and how well-developed their community was.
For example, an ethnic group that's better entrenched here would be able to offer its members more support and resources, Roth said. Levels of poverty and disability were considered, too.
As for language, "if you don't speak English, your chance of buying a house goes down," he said. Those not proficient in English also might not be unaware of their rights and responsibilities when it comes to renting, Roth said.
He cited instances in which renters have been charged illegally high security deposits.
According to the Census Bureau's 2011 American Community Survey, 72,934 people in Lancaster County speak a language other than English at home, and 26,106 said they spoke English "less than very well."
The LHOP study concluded that the top five languages spoken by the most vulnerable populations here are Arabic, Burmese, Karen (spoken by a subcategory of Burmese), Nepali (spoken by the Bhutanese) and Vietnamese.
Research also identified the need to translate housing documents into Russian, Creole, Mandarin Chinese and Mon-Khmer, a language of Southeast Asia.
Translations -- including fair-housing documents and LHOP's landlord-tenant manual -- are being done now, Roth said. Audio versions will be available for those who can't read.
Nonprofit workers who deal with refugees and immigrants on housing and other issues also will be trained under the grant, he said.
And later this year, homebuyer classes in these languages will be offered, Roth said.
He said the language and fair-housing study could have a broader application as well, with social service and government agencies translating their forms into at least some of these nine languages.
In addition, the study could serve as a model for other communities with refugee and immigrant populations, Roth said.
The nuanced nature of the research is what makes it stand out, said Anne Gingerich, director of the Nonprofit Resource Network, whose mission is to help nonprofits become more effective, efficient and financially stable.
The study didn't just pinpoint the population lacking in English proficiency, but focused on "what it is that makes [certain groups] most vulnerable," she said.
Susan Dicklitch, director of The Ware Institute for Civic Engagement at Franklin & Marshall College and a member of the Lancaster County Refugee Coalition, said the depth of the study was very impressive and taught her more about the diversity of those who settle here.
Church World Service of Lancaster -- one of two agencies, along with Lutheran Refugee Services, that resettle refugees in Lancaster County -- has resettled 1,405 refugees in Lancaster and surrounding counties since 2008. Ninety-eight percent of those have been in Lancaster County, said Sheila McGeehan Mastropietro, director of Church World Service's Lancaster office.
She said the breakdown is 65 percent Bhutanese (ethnic Nepali), 20 percent Burmese, 7 percent Iraqi and 9 percent other (Sudanese, Somali, Ethiopian, Eritrean, former Soviet Union).
Dicklitch said the study reinforces the Lancaster County Refugee Coalition's grass-roots efforts toward integration.
"It's not a top-down approach" in which government directives form the guidelines, she said.
Instead, "people in the trenches" -- those who work with refugees here -- are the ones whose voices need to be heard, Dicklitch said.
Helping refugees purchase a house or become better renters, she said, fits with the coalition's goal of giving them the tools to succeed as they try to build a life in a strange country and culture.
nOrganization determines which immigrants and refugees need the most help overcoming language barriers regarding housing.