SEATTLE — King County is directing $3 million toward temporarily housing asylum-seekers currently sheltering at a Tukwila church, providing badly needed relief to the refuge that continues to see new families arrive daily.
The money will be used to fund up to 100 hotel rooms through June, said county spokesperson Chase Gallagher.
During Thanksgiving weekend, the county moved 24 people into eight hotel rooms. County officials hope to move hundreds of asylum-seekers — most of whom are fleeing violence, conflict or persecution in their home countries of Venezuela, Angola or Congo — into those additional hotel rooms this week.
The $3 million allocation is the first major assistance directed toward ameliorating the spiraling humanitarian crisis since people first began arriving at the church last December.
About 500 people currently reside at Riverton United Methodist Church in Tukwila, living in rows of tents on the property and packed into most corners of the building, the Rev. Jan Bolerjack said Tuesday. That’s up from just a month ago.
“It sounds like things are going to start moving fairly quickly,” Bolerjack said, sitting in her office as three young children played with wooden toys at her feet. “It’s positive steps.”
The funding comes as an already dire situation has worsened in recent weeks. Howling wind, freezing nighttime temperatures and heavy rain have torn into the scores of tarps and tents covering the church’s muddy lot, drenching peoples’ clothes and documents.
Those inside the church building are pressed together on cots and mattress toppers, filling up nearly all the available floor space. Many there are sick or have perpetual coughs because of their exposure to the elements and the crammed quarters inside, Bolerjack said.
King County hired Thrive International, a Spokane-based nonprofit that provides transitional housing to refugee and immigrant communities, to help move people from the church to hotel rooms.
The county will prioritize the most vulnerable residents currently staying at the church — families with young children and people who are pregnant.
“This is a temporary but critical step to make sure those most at risk can stay warm, housed and healthy this winter while government partners at all levels work together toward a more complete solution,” Metropolitan King County Councilmember Joe McDermott, whose district includes the church, said in a statement Wednesday.
Longer-term funding and solutions have yet to be determined, county officials said.
Until recently, help has been slow, with city, county and state officials dragging their feet to take responsibility. Such a large group of asylum-seekers arriving in Tukwila — where there is little existing infrastructure or support designed for them — is unprecedented. For weeks, officials pointed to one another, claiming that assistance for the asylum-seekers was outside of their purview or that funding was too limited.
In October, the city of Tukwila declared a state of emergency over the situation, and state and local representatives officially launched a task force that outlined potential ways to help.
Many of the people staying on the church grounds arrived because they heard about it through word-of-mouth, from friends or family or fellow travelers. Some were sent to the church by a different shelter in another state, those agencies also overwhelmed and eager to make room for new asylum-seekers.
Since December, hundreds of people — young single men, pregnant women, families with young children — have come to Bolerjack’s doorstep. She, her congregation, mutual-aid groups and homeless shelters nearby have shouldered most of the burden to triage the situation for the last year while waiting for help from officials.
Unlike refugees, asylum-seekers don’t need permission to enter the U.S. Instead, those seeking protection from violence or persecution in their home country must step foot in the country and apply for asylum, then go before a federal immigration judge to see if their request is granted.
To earn money to afford an attorney and pay for their own housing, asylum-seekers must secure a work permit with the federal government, a process that can take more than six months. Even after securing a work permit, asylum-seekers may wait months, if not years, to have their case reviewed.
While the new allocation will provide temporary relief to some, 100 hotel rooms is not enough to shelter all that are currently at the church, Bolerjack said, let alone the new individuals and families that arrive in the future.