After fleeing homophobic violence and repression in Nigeria in 2016, public health and gay rights activist Edafe Okporo came to the United States to seek asylum. He spent five months in detention before being released one night with nowhere to go. His only option was a homeless shelter, the first of several he’d stay in before eventually finding a job that got him on his feet. Through this experience, he realized that for displaced people like him, getting to the U.S. was only part of a long struggle to secure a new life. “The first issue is getting documented, and the second issue is getting a place to stay,” Okporo says.
Now, just four years later, he’s the executive director of RDJ Refugee Shelter, a nonprofit aid center founded in 2011 that helps asylum seekers and refugees get legal and housing assistance in New York City. It’s work that made him one of the inaugural winners of the David Prize, a new annual award from the Walentas Family Foundation that gives unrestricted $200,000 grants to five people with “progressive visions to improve New York City.”
Okporo’s vision is to end street homelessness in the city. If housing can be found for displaced people such as refugees and asylum seekers, he says, it can be found for every person experiencing homelessness. He’s now pushing the city to follow his lead in designing new approaches to these issues.
RDJ Refugee Shelter provides 10 beds for refugees and asylum seekers, but also works with case managers and social workers to help people get the kinds of resources they need to avoid homelessness—whether it’s legal advice, connections to jobs, English-language classes, or help eventually finding their own apartments, which they’ve done for nearly 100 asylum seekers. To enable people to start new lives in this country, Okporo says, this kind of comprehensive support is needed.
The challenges facing refugees and asylum seekers are significant, Okporo says, and many, himself included, spend their first months in the country simply trying to survive. “When you come to a new country, because you don’t have family, it’s difficult for you to think about [housing and financial] sustainability,” he says. Many end up in entry-level jobs, squeaking by on very low incomes and often relying on shelters.
“The New York real estate market is one of the most difficult in the country,” he says. For refugees, asylum seekers, and other immigrants, finding housing on the private market is nearly impossible. Prospective renters need a credit history, the equivalent of 20 months of rent in the bank, or a guarantor as a financial backer. “But these people that just came here, how do you get a guarantor, how do you save 20 times the rent when this is your first paycheck for a $15-an-hour job?”
The private market is simply incompatible with the needs of these people, he says. To truly address their housing needs, the city needs to step in.
“Refugees, asylum seekers, and displaced people are not on an equal playing field with Americans who grew up in this country, who have families, who have networks,” he says. “So the only way we can solve it is to go back to the basics of creating affordable housing for people who do not have high socioeconomic status.”
That means building more affordable housing, investing more in what’s already available, and redesigning how it’s all allocated, he says.
Okporo points to New York City’s Housing Opportunities for Persons with AIDS program, which responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis by prioritizing stable and supportive housing for low-income people suffering with the disease. He says a similar approach should be taken to prioritize vulnerable people such as refugees and asylum seekers.
Okporo will use the award from the David Prize to continue working with other refugee organizations as well as tenants’ rights groups and homelessness advocates to call for changes in how the city thinks about affordable housing.
“New York is a sanctuary city. That means New York is ready to care for people who are displaced. But the problem is how can they channel that desire to care for people into effective strategies,” he says. “So that is why they need people like us who are always pushing the boundaries.”