Colorado opens transitional housing site for Afghan refugees

Thirty-one Afghan refugees are expected to arrive at Colorado’s temporary transitional housing site Thursday, according to state refugee coordinators.

The publicly undisclosed location in metro Denver, selected through a bid process, opened to refugees on Wednesday and at least seven people are already staying there. The federal government is fully funding the transitional housing site and program — currently budgeted at $16 million, though that could change — and state officials expect that it will remain open through March.

Not every refugee who comes to Colorado will stay in transitional housing before finding a more permanent home, with many of those being housed relocating from military bases across the country. About 1,000 Afghan refugees have come to Colorado since August, and state leaders anticipate about 1,000 more will arrive by mid-February.

“We’ve all had to sort of think about what are the ingredients that we have locally, how do we put them together, how is it different than other cities or other states, and come up with a Colorado solution. … Our partnership with the federal government here is to facilitate people getting off the bases because those were never supposed to be permanent,” said Kit Taintor, the director of the newly-created Office of New Americans.

Taintor called the moment historic. Although Colorado has been accepting refugees since 1980, this is the first time the state created transitional housing for them. A new command team was formed in August after evacuations in Afghanistan during the Taliban takeover made it clear that a large number of refugees would be arriving in a shorter timespan than normal and a quicker response would be needed.

Colorado is the first state to have an official agreement with the federal government to run a site at this scale, Colorado State Refugee Coordinator Noyes Combs said, though other states are preparing similar sites. With about 30,000 refugees still on military bases, they view this as a more efficient way to help settle and provide centralized services to refugees, already vetted as well as vaccinated against COVID-19

The majority of the refugees staying in Colorado’s transitional housing are in the country on humanitarian parole. Stays are expected to last on average between two and four weeks, with a goal of at least 90% of people finding permanent housing within 30 days.

The maximum capacity at the site will vary, depending on the number of families that arrive versus individuals, but it has space for more than 200 families. State officials say they are keeping the location a secret to ensure the families’ safety, particularly as the refugees have escaped traumatic situations.

“We’re talking about people here who have been through enormous trauma and hardship, and they have literally run for their lives with nothing but the clothes on their backs. And many of them have served American interests in Afghanistan,” Mark Techmeyer, spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Human Services, said.

In addition to having a place to sleep and eat, Colorado’s three refugee resettlement agencies — African Community Center, Lutheran Family Services and the International Rescue Committee — and volunteers will work with state partners in one place to help the Afghans in transitional housing with their new lives and case management, whether that’s finding work, getting their kids enrolled in school or accessing medical care. At the site, they have dedicated spaces for worship and children’s play.

“What the team here is doing is it’s creating that safe and that welcoming environment that allows the resettlement agencies to have the time to then transition them to more traditional resettlement … that we’ve been doing for many, many years,” Mike Willis, director of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, said.

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