The Society for Social Work and Research

2014 Annual Conference

January 15-19, 2014 I Grand Hyatt San Antonio I San Antonio, TX

What a Difference the Office Makes: The Impact of Organizational Setting On the Allocation of Housing Resources By Refugee Resettlement Workers

Thursday, January 16, 2014: 2:30 PM
HBG Convention Center, Room 102B Street Level (San Antonio, TX)
* noted as presenting author
Jessica H. Darrow, MSW, Doctoral Candidate, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
The State Department provides mandates for local refugee resettlement organizations to follow related to the housing of refugees. These mandates define the parameters within which the resettlement agencies do their work, and they are tied to performance measures that affect the conditions of work in resettlement agencies. However, they do not explain what refugee housing policy actually looks like, or why it looks the way it does. Street level theory explains that, in order to understand the form that policy actually takes, research must study the routine practices of street-level workers. This paper is drawn from a larger study that employs the street-level organizations framework to examine the adaptive use of discretion and patterns of practice that develop at two urban refugee resettlement agencies. This paper focuses narrowly on the housing process at the resettlement agencies and asks, what were the routine practices of caseworkers at these resettlement agencies when they interacted with, and on behalf of, their refugee clients, and with what consequences in terms of how housing resources were distributed?

Data for this paper come from original organizational ethnographic data collected for a larger study of refugee resettlement policy. Research was conducted over an 18-month period at two urban resettlement agencies operating comprehensive resettlement programs. Research methods included semi- and un-structured interviews, observation, and archival review. Seventy-five subjects were included in the study. Data was coded using a theoretically based matrix, and analyzed with the guide of street-level theory.

This paper finds that organizational conditions had an effect on the housing stock workers were able to access for their refugee clients. Workers who were given clear goals and tasks, and access to resources such as time and general operating funds were able to build strong relationships with local landlords, and as a result to make higher quality and more affordable housing available to their refugee clients. Workers who had competing demands on their time, and who had fewer resources, were not able to make strong connections with landlords. As a result the apartments they accessed for their clients were often of lower quality. On the other and, organizational setting did not matter when it came to the kind of information provided to refugee clients. The type of housing information varied from worker to worker and client to client, regardless of agency. Some workers erred on the side of providing housing information in great detail, while others focused on the need for clients to comply with worker demands. The result was that, depending on the worker assigned, some refugees were given a clearly articulated housing policy, and had the opportunity to affect some aspects of their own housing experience, while other refugees were exposed to a vague and confusing housing policy, and were not encouraged to participate in decisions being made on their behalf. These findings have implications for refugee resettlement practitioners who might rethink how organizational conditions promote certain kinds of caseworker practice. This research contributes to the literature on street-level organizations, organizational management, and refugee resettlement.