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Washington state to welcome thousands of Afghan refugees despite soaring homeless numbers

Potential obstacles to resettlement include a lack of affordable housing, a large homeless population, and limited hotel options due to the pandemic.

Updated: August 27, 2021 - 10:42pm

Some 6,000 refugees from Afghanistan could resettle in Washington over the coming weeks and months.

Hundreds of thousands of people are reportedly trying to flee the country as the Taliban reclaims power ahead of President Joe Biden's planned withdrawal of American troops by the end of the month.

Many of them are interpreters and others who assisted U.S. troops and now fear retribution without protection from the American military. According to the International Rescue Committee, some 300,000 Afghans have been affiliated with U.S. operations in the country since 2001.

Washington's Office of Refugee and Immigration Assistance said that between 2010 and 2020 about 4,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa holders settled in the state. Another 350 were welcomed between late 2020 and the end of July, and another 220 since the beginning of August.

Eight refugee resettlement agencies in Washington are working with state and federal authorities to provide initial services to incoming families. Most refugees are expected to settle in Washington's larger counties, including King County, where Seattle is located.

These agencies work to provide housing, essential needs, culturally appropriate food, help refugees apply for employment services and social programs, and register children for school.

The federal government's Refugee Admissions Program pays refugees a one-time payment of $1,200 per family member to help with initial housing costs. Those eligible will also qualify for state-level cash, food and medical programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.

World Relief Seattle is coordinating donation drives whereby people can drop off care packages at their local city hall. Among the most needed items are toiletries, bedding, towels and kitchenware.

The state Office of Refugee and Immigration Assistance said one major obstacle would be finding both temporary and permanent housing that is affordable. Larger cities like Seattle are known for their lack of affordable housing and a large homeless population. Hotel options are also limited because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The resettlement agencies typically receive a 10-day notice of new arrivals, but in the current situation, refugees have been arriving with less than 24-hour notice.

"That is the number one challenge, affordable housing," Chitra Hanstad, executive director of World Relief Seattle, told KOMO-TV4 News. "We are seeing people step up for temporary housing. We also see folks that have mother-in-law suites and that have Airbnb that they are willing to rent out permanently."

Hanstad also said a recent host home orientation saw 260 people sign up.

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