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How HUD Funds Are Savings Refugees in Worcester

Monday, February 20, 2012


Photo of Thuha Le

Thuha Le attempted to escape communist-controlled postwar Vietnam 10 times before finally making it to Worcester in 1991. The daughter of a South Vietnamese Government official, Le saw her life altered radically by the end of the Vietnam War in 1975.

“When the communists took over the country,” Le said, “because my father worked for the government, they put him in prison.”

She added, “I was not allowed to go to college. That’s why I had to escape the country, so I could go back to school and give my children a better life.”

Her father incarcerated, it fell to Le to assist her mother in raising her 10 siblings. “I became a mother at home as a teenager,” she said,” so that my mom could go to work to feed the family.”

Before finally escaping Vietnam, Le endured 10 failed attempts in as many years and two prison terms of her own.

“The 10th time I tried to leave the country,” Le remembered, “I had 2 kids with me.”

To complicate matters, Le was pregnant and just 2 weeks from delivering her 3rd child. “That time, I got put in a prison,” Le said, “with my 2 kids and my husband and my pregnancy.”

On her 11th attempt, after two years in a Malaysian refugee camp, Le was finally able exit Vietnam, with her three children, and enter the United States in 1991, at age 28. She now serves as the Executive Director of Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEACMA).

Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts

Of the many nationalities represented by the SEACMA, many are still dealing with displacement and fallout related to the Vietnam War. While the War officially ended for the United States in 1975, the nations of Southeast Asia—most notably Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos—faced years of continued struggle, the consequences of which are still being dealt with in locales as far-flung from Asia as Worcester.

Established in 2001, the Southeast Asian Coalition of Central Massachusetts (SEACMA) is a nonprofit social services organization and Community Development Block Grantee located in Worcester. SEACMA provides Worcester’s Southeast Asian community with walk-in services like translation, interpretation and assistance related to common issues like health insurance, citizenship and bill payment. The only group of its kind in Central Massachusetts, SEACMA also provides clients with referrals to other local services for housing assistance, food stamps and legal counsel.

SEACMA Provides Several Social Services

Additionally, the organization provides three levels of reading and writing English as a second language (ESL) classes for around 150 students each year.

“We also run a youth afterschool program serving children from 13 to 19,” Thuha Le said. “This year we’re serving about 96 students.”

Cultural programs, like the annual Asian Festival of Worcester, a neighborhood watch group and assistance with tax preparation round out the assorted SEACMA services upon which many in the community have come to rely.

“It’s very important, I can tell you, for myself too as a newcomer to this country,” Le said. “When we come to the U.S., we can get lost in the system.”

The Vietnamese culture, language and terrain of Le’s upbringing were so dissimilar from those of the U.S. that the transitional disorientation caused by the very act of establishing herself was daunting.

Providing Help for Refugees

Refugees from war torn regions have a chance to start over in the U.S. and support from the government is, according to Le, enormously important.

When a Southeast Asian immigrant gains American citizenship, he or she can sponsor a family member but—especially during a recession—making ends meet usually requires more than 1 income.

“So the family member comes here as an immigrant. The citizen can provide shelter and food but they cannot provide the language,” she said and added, “They cannot provide a job.”

Le continued, “We help those newcomers quickly integrate, learn the language and get a job so that they can be independent and contribute to our society. Without our services they can’t adapt to the new environment, the new home, the new life that they live here.”

Community Development Block Grant

According to Worcester City Manager Michael O’Brien, Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funds pay for “Neighborhood Revitalization, Housing, Public Services and Economic Development programs.” In a letter to the Worcester City Council regarding Fiscal Year 2012 Community Development Block Grant Funding, O’Brien laments the reductions’ “major impact on our ability to support our Neighborhood Revitalization, Housing, Public Services, and Economic Development Programs.”

“But,” the letter continues, “I remain committed to continuing to allocate these limited resources in support of these important quality of life programs and services.”

While reductions to CDBG funding are a challenge for the City of Worcester, they were expected to a certain extent. “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 or ARRA funds,” said Jacqueline Vachon-Jackson, chief of staff for the city’s office of Economic, Neighborhood and Workforce Development, “were a onetime increase.”

The City of Worcester saw a bump in funding, thanks to the federal stimulus, bringing the total to around $4.95 million in Fiscal Year 2011. But funds this year have been trimmed by over $800,000.

Created in 1974 by the federal government, the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) helps renew communities, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) website, “by providing decent housing and a suitable living environment, and by expanding economic opportunities, principally for low- and moderate-income persons.”

As an “entitlement community,” cities like Worcester receive CDBG resources directly from the federal government. Smaller cities and towns in Worcester County receive CDBG funds from the state.

Worcester County CDBG funding has declined dramatically in the last few years. In Fiscal Year 2009, CDBG awards totaled $40.36 million but, by 2011, that number dropped to just over $28 million.

Literature and data related to CDBG resource allocation refer to Worcester’s Fiscal Year 2012 as “funding year 37,” meaning the 37th year CDBG funds have been distributed. Since, in Worcester’s case, the CDBG funding year doesn’t match up with the city’s fiscal year, recommendations for leftover funds are made to the City Council by the City Manager based on petitions for service extensions from funded entities.

Grantees combine CDBG funds with financial resources from other funding partners to provide a broad array of public services, affordable housing and economic development to Worcester.

SEACMA Survival

According to records provided by the Office of the City Manager, SEACMA received $18,401 in Year 36 funding (July 2010 – June 2011) but just $14,950 in Year 37.

“But,” Thuha Le said, “Right now it’s changing again.”

Le said SEACMA lost significant funding from another source in October of 2011 but, she said, “We met with the City and they’re giving us extra onetime funding for this year.”

The additional $10,000 from Worcester will allow SEACMA to continue to operate without a major disruption in services for the area’s Southeast Asian population.  


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