Bags of clothes, toys and other family belongings spill out of lockers along one wall of the shelter, and brightly colored African blouses and wraparound garments are draped over fences outside to air.
From cubicles tucked in a corner of the YWCA Interfaith Hospitality Network shelter, workers contact other poverty-relief agencies. They are trying to find affordable housing and jobs for about a dozen Somali Bantu families who have lived for months in a center designed for stays of a few weeks.
Columbus has 30,000 Somali residents, more than any other U.S. city except Minneapolis. The Ohio state capital is experiencing a wave of secondary migration unmatched in other cities.
Social service agencies say they were not prepared to deal with the influx. "It's a significant strain," said Angela K. Plummer, director of Community Refugee/Immigrant Services. "We're a refugee agency, so people go, 'Here are these refugees; help them.' "
About 200 Somali Bantus arrived in Columbus from other U.S. cities in the past six months, seeking jobs and affordable housing they heard earlier immigrants found easily. Among them were 34 from Memphis; 30 from Atlanta; 26 from Hartford, Conn.; 22 from Chicago; and 18 from Utica, N.Y.
At the shelter, African languages mix with English as parents and staff members try to corral a dozen or so children to help clean the open room filled with benches, tables and cots -- a constant task with so many people in such a small space.
Isha Hussein Gudey arrived from Chicago in February because she was no longer able to pay her $800 monthly rent. Median monthly rent for apartments in Columbus is lower, ranging from $683 for two bedrooms to $989 for four.
"The priority right now is to get housing," Gudey, speaking through an interpreter, said in her native Maay Maay.
Yet housing regulations prevent having more than two people per bedroom in apartments, and affordable three- and four-bedroom apartments are scarce.
Gudey stays at the shelter with her three youngest children -- three others are at school. Her husband, Sheikh Mohamed Abdalla, is trying to learn English, hoping to find a job once the family finds a home.
At the beginning of the month, five families totaling 37 people were staying at the shelter. A month earlier, about a dozen families totaling about 90 people made the shelter their temporary home. Families are bused to churches at night to sleep.
Twenty-two Somali families totaling 95 people are living in long-term homeless shelters designed for stays as long as three months. Those shelters are run by other social service organizations.
"They did overwhelm the system, and they caught people off guard," said Daniel James Van Lehman, deputy director of the National Somali Bantu Project at Portland State University in Oregon.
Most of Ohio's first wave of Somalis started arriving in the mid-1990s to escape civil war. About 400 Bantus, a group whose ancestors were brought to Somalia as slaves in the 19th century, came to Columbus last year.
Most now have jobs and houses or apartments, and are familiar with most aspects of American culture.
Franklin County had $639,704 in federal grants to help the first wave of immigrants find jobs, houses and health care, enroll their children in school and learn English. A coalition of government and social service organizations will request more money, said Lance Porter, a spokesman for the county's Department of Job and Family Services.
Community Refugee/Immigrant Services receives a federal grant to deal with unexpected arrivals, but that is enough for only one employee, who cannot handle all cases, Plummer said. The money helps migrants find jobs but not housing.
In Columbus, Somali community organizations are translating for the recent migrants and cooking authentic Somali food.
Community leaders agree the city was not prepared to handle the influx.
"The [federal] settlement plan was not executed the way it should have been," said Fatuma Bihi, a spokeswoman for Somali Women and Children's Alliance, which also helps immigrants find homes and jobs. She said Somalis are used to living in close-knit villages and were not accustomed to being spread throughout different communities.
Many new refugees have no family or friends in Columbus -- unlike other secondary migrants -- and come because they have a vague impression of a thriving community.
"They're arriving without any direct connection [to Columbus] or even job prospect," said Dennis Evans of the state Department of Job and Family Services.