Friends of Refugees

A U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program Watchdog Group

Refugees in Milwaukee in wretched housing – roaches, sewage, 900+ violations

Posted by Christopher Coen on May 24, 2011

Don’t think the deplorable conditions under which Australian refugee resettlement contractors are resettling refugees in Newcastle are any different from what keeps happening over here on the other side of the big pond. In Milwaukee journalists just busted Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan for placing Burmese refugees in an apartment building overflowing with code violations, roaches, and leaking sewage, and run by a known child-porn felon. He has been convicted of tax offenses, has a history of serious building-code violations, and is being sued by the city in four different lawsuits – yet Lutheran Social Services claims they have the best interests of the refugees at heart — for sure. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel tells more:

Dozens of Burmese refugees who fled persecution in their homeland have landed in recent years in cockroach-infested Milwaukee apartments, some thick with the smell of leaking sewage and almost all unprotected by working smoke or carbon monoxide detectors.

Many of the refugees were placed in the squalid conditions by Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, which acknowledges it never conducted a background check on the complex’s owner, Daniel Bruckner, a Fox Point lawyer.

State and city records reviewed by the Journal Sentinel show Bruckner faces hundreds of city building code violations and four city lawsuits, owes nearly a half-million dollars in delinquent property taxes and has seven felony convictions for importing child pornography.

Lutheran Social Services was unaware of Bruckner’s code violations and legal troubles, said Natascha Malkemes, a spokeswoman for the agency.

“We should know these things,” she conceded, adding,”We have our clients’ best interests at heart for sure.”

On Friday, the agency - which is paid federal dollars to settle refugees - released a statement saying, “The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel has recently made our organization aware of litigation against and a criminal record of a landlord we have worked with in the past. Because of this development, Lutheran Social Services will immediately begin looking into ways to put procedures in place to apply background check standards on all of the landlords we work with.”

In addition, the agency pledged to contact the refugees who rent from Bruckner and assist any who wish to move.

Bruckner placed the blame for most of his 443 building-code infractions at Wilson Park Garden Apartments on his tenants, especially the Burmese refugees…

…The U.S. State Department’s standard agreement with social services agencies says refugees should have “decent, safe and sanitary housing” with working smoke detectors, adequate heat and electrical fixtures, and should be “free of rodent and insect infestation” with “no detectable dangerous or unsanitary odors.”

But in interview after interview, refugees living in the apartments on S. 20th St. said they had tried for months without success to get Bruckner to fix failings in these areas…

…The cockroach problems had persisted for months, according to residents, and were evident in numerous visits by reporters to the complex.

At night, bugs came out and bit her children, explained Paw Shee during an interview two weeks ago. Shee, a 36-year-old, lives at the apartment complex with her husband, three children and an army of roaches. Sometimes the bugs crawled over her face, Shee said,
speaking through an interpreter.

When workers finally fumigated apartments on May 5, they did so while adults and young children were inside, according to the residents. Missy Henriksen, a spokeswoman for the National Pest Management Association, said manufacturers usually recommend that a spray be dry before people re-enter a room.

One floor above, Moo Nge, his wife and their five children had one of the few carbon monoxide detectors in the apartments that reporters visited. The detector was installed only after Moo Nge was rushed to the hospital in September with carbon monoxide poisoning, which family members said happened when he was cooking. The hospitalization forced him to miss work, and he lost his temp job.

On the top floor of the same building lives a woman named Mu Mu, 43, her three children and three other family members. Their refrigerator is broken. So is one of the toilets, and there is a gaping hole behind the bathtub faucet.

“We tried to call, but he did not come,” Mu Mu said when asked about the landlord…

…Malkemes acknowledged that her agency had no idea that Bruckner is a convicted felon with a history of serious building-code violations who is being sued by the city in four different lawsuits. She agreed that these issues could affect the safety of the refugees.

When asked about the cockroach infestation at the apartments, Malkemes said by email: “New arrivals come from refugee camps where they had no electricity or running water, and sometimes are not accustomed to general upkeep or how to properly store food. In these camps, refugees are often exposed to insects and this is their everyday (life).”

Non-refugees agree

Although Bruckner and his building manager blamed refugees for the cockroach problem, other tenants who are not refugees also described having infestation problems at Wilson Park Garden Apartments. Moreover, these tenants provided accounts that mirrored other hardships cited by the refugees.

Families described arriving in winter to apartments without heat, going days without working refrigerators and weeks or months without working stoves. The problems the families described are consistent with those cited in inspectors’ reports.

Despite these conditions, the non-refugee tenants were paying as much as $845 a month in rent…Read more here

Let’s see, what could be LIRS’ excuse this time? No doubt it will be the same tired old excuses – their affiliate (subcontractor) didn’t
“know” about the apartments or the slumlord running the place. (Why not? Aren’t they paid to know?) Or, Lutheran Social Services has been growing. Gee, isn’t that the point of having LIRS and its vast experience on hand to advise and oversee its affiliate? And why didn’t the State Department know about this mess? Oh I forgot, LIRS and the other volags are “partners” and are supposed to “self-monitor” their affiliates. Yet once again that method proves disastrous. In the meantime the State Dept. monitors most likely haven’t inspected for years. These refugees would have continued to suffer in these deplorable conditions had journalists not intervened.

Lutheran Social Services claims it “will immediately begin looking into ways to put procedures in place to apply background check standards on all of the landlords we work with”? Yet LIRS has been
resettling refugees for decades and the State Department and
journalists have continually caught them placing refugees into
deplorable slum apartments. Why aren’t background checks the norm at every LIRS affiliate?

Will we see the State Department’s Office of Admissions conduct a timely Australian-style investigation – with an investigation report made immediately available to the public? Don’t count on it. Our national refugee resettlement program seems to be run secretively with the sole purpose of shielding the private refugee resettlement contractor partners and their government oversight friends from any real accountability.

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One Response to “Refugees in Milwaukee in wretched housing – roaches, sewage, 900+ violations”

  1. Mary said

    The volag drops the refugees off at the apartments, and is also required to make a home visit. Don’t they see it is a dump? It is obvious to anyone.

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