CRISIS OR COMMUNITY? Welcoming unhoused Venezuelan asylum seekers

For nearly a decade, there has been a mass exodus of Venezuelans from their homeland. However, since November 2021, the numbers have surged, with at least 753,000 Venezuelans fleeing political repression and chronic hyperinflation. Today, nearly ¾ of the country’s population lives in extreme poverty, which is less than $2 per day.

Over the past two years, Casa Alterna has offered hospitality to 45 asylum seekers from Venezuela. Most have only needed short-term housing before reuniting with family or friends in places like Miami and New York. However, this summer, something changed – Venezuelans began arriving in Atlanta with no one to receive them.

A recent guest at the airport awaiting a flight to her new home on the West Coast.

This summer, we have already hosted ten Venezuelans needing stable housing. However, the demand far exceeded our capacity, and we have probably turned away over a dozen requests for accommodation in just the past two weeks.

Why Atlanta? The word on migrants’ social media is that Atlanta is a friendly city with work and relatively affordable housing. One said officials guaranteed housing for a year and a $600 food voucher upon arrival in Atlanta. Neither is true.

An Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officer interviews asylum seekers in Texas. They must provide an address of where they will reside so that ICE and immigration court can send correspondence and supervise these newcomers pending the results of their court proceedings. We have learned from our guests that if they tell the ICE officer that Atlanta is their destination but have no address, the ICE officer will write a bogus address on the paperwork.

Recent guests working alongside our meetinghouse’s landscaping committee. While seeking asylum is a legal process, in the U.S., asylum seekers are not automatically granted work permits.

Almost all of our Venezuelan guests have come to us from the Migrant Resource Center, a 450-bed San Antonio, TX shelter. Three organizations provide one-way bus tickets to asylum seekers – the City of San Antonio, Catholic Charities, and Interfaith Welcome Center (IWC). An IWC representative assured me that they try to confirm that everyone they purchase a bus ticket for has a verified address. However, with hundreds passing through that shelter daily, the options for local service agencies are likely minimal.

Residents at Casa Alterna are offered free English classes.

Atlanta is on the cusp of a crisis. Scores of vulnerable unhoused people from a faraway land are arriving at our doorstep. The City of Atlanta, local nonprofit organizations, and the area’s faith community are behind the curve, but they’re mobilizing. What is now needed is a coordinated response between all levels of government and Atlanta’s non-profit and faith communities.

Casa Alterna has recently opened a second location for asylum seekers needing housing stabilization. Private families have offered their spare bedrooms. Other organizations provide case management, hotel vouchers, food, and other forms of assistance. Soon government and social services providers will have our first virtual meeting to begin coordinating services.

Martin Luther King, Jr. had a vision of the Beloved Community, a society marked by reconciliation and redemption where strangers become friends. The arrival of asylum seekers to Atlanta is an opportunity to build part of King’s beloved community with those in need of refuge.

Crisis or community? (Notice the San Antonio shelter’s bracelet on a recent guest.)

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