Hidden Crisis of Homelessness on Tribal Lands

Large U.S. cities are known for high rates of homelessness. The housing emergency on tribal lands is hidden, but just as devastating. Housing shortages and evictions have created a quiet crisis of homelessness for Native Americans. The Trump administration plans to slash housing funding to Native American tribes.

Sarah Headdress now lives in a tiny home. Before she moved there, she was living in a house with 11 people. Photo: Sofia Jaramillo for the Guardian

 

by Lauren Dake

To Jenece Howe, it seemed like an ordinary yard sale. But as she surveyed the items, arrayed on a patch of land on the Native American reservation, she paused. It appeared to her as if the contents of a home had simply been dumped outside. And the elderly women selling the items looked distraught.

Soon Howe, an enrolled member of the Yakama Nation, learned the reason. The woman, and many others, had been evicted from a tribal housing complex.

“It was horrible,” Howe said. “Horrible. Families had lived there for 20-plus years. That was their home. That was their everything.”

Several tribal members estimated that anywhere from 350 to 500 members of the Yakama Nation, a sovereign tribe in Washington state with a vast and beautiful reservation, were displaced from 60 tribal-owned residences last spring.

Some fell behind on rent, others failed drug tests or had overcrowded homes. As many as 18 people lived in one three-bedroom house, according to reports in a local paper. Many of those evicted had nowhere else to go.

While cities such as Los Angeles, Seattle and New York regularly garner headlines over the number of people living on their streets, the ongoing housing emergency on tribal lands has been harder to discern.

Perhaps this is because homelessness on reservations looks different than elsewhere, and often doesn’t mean living outside, according to a study by the federal housing agency. It is more common for people to move in with others, often relatives, crammed into a single home.

A few years ago, as many as 85,000 tribal members across the country were living with friends or relatives, the report showed, and it is four times as likely that Native Americans will inhabit homes that are overcrowded and in need of repairs.

One recent news report noted that a Wyoming tribe with 11,000 members had only 230 homes on its reservation.

“There are plenty of examples where you have housing shortages, you have overcrowding. It’s not exclusive to the northwest,” said Tony Walters, the executive director of the National American Indian Housing Council.

He emphasized that communalism was an important cultural value for many Native Americans, though this did not diminish the scale of the problem. “It’s almost like people don’t think of it, like it’s a given in these communities,” Walters said.

One of the underlying factors is a crushing 30 percent poverty rate, close to double the national rate, according to census data.

“There’s a lot of couch surfing,” Howe said of the Yakama reservation. “A lot of our families will go stay until they wear out their welcome and then go to another family member. It’s not uncommon to have three generations of family in one home.”

A woman named Sarah Headdress, for instance, was recently living in a friend’s four-bedroom house. It had no running water and lacked a hallway floor. The only room with electricity was the living room.

She ticked off those who lived there: “It was a good friend of mine, her kids, her niece, she had three kids, her sister. My boyfriend, oh and Melissa, me, and Jay, my son.”

‘Hectic and hellish’

The Yakama Nation comprises about 31,000 people, and the reservation covers more than one million acres of rivers and rolling hills. The eviction there was initiated by the housing authority, which is separate from the tribal government.

It “wasn’t trying to be mean,” said Delano Saluskin, the vice-chairman of the Yakama Nation tribal council. “It was a conscious decision if these families cannot maintain their rental agreement and maintain the regulations about drug and alcohol, let’s find families that can,” adding that there is a wait list of 1,800 families hoping for tribal housing.

Roberta Strong, 67, was evicted from her home in a Yakama Nation housing project in Washington. Hundreds of people have been evicted, many with no place to go. Photo: Sofia Jaramillo for the Guardian

 

Whatever the case, the result for some has been homelessness.

Roberta Strong, 67, lived in a tribal home. She once worked as an assistant to the vice-chairwoman of the Yakama Nation’s tribal council, the second-highest official within the tribe. But after a stint of unemployment, she fell behind on rent.

Although she was able to begin paying again before the eviction date, it made no difference. When she was given 48-hours notice to leave her home of 16 years, she was devastated.

Strong moved into her cousin’s house, along with her 20-year-old grandson, Schylor Lucei, but soon felt suffocated. There was a rotating crew of about seven people sleeping in the living room of the one-bedroom home.

“There were too many people in the house,” Strong said. Her grandson described it as “hectic and hellish.”

Many others headed to a shuttered RV park on the reservation. The tribal government provided tents and blankets and opened up the park’s showers and bathrooms for people to use. At one point, there were at least 100 people living in tents in the park.

By early this year, the tents had disappeared and the tribe had built more than a dozen tiny homes, most measuring approximately 10 by 12 feet, in which many people still live. The units don’t have plumbing.

But residents, including Strong and her grandson, who share one of the homes, said that despite the tight accommodations, they feel freer. Others are drawn to the cabins as well; there’s a waitlist of more than 60 people who would like to move to the park.

Even so, some would rather avoid it and tribal housing altogether, owing to their rules and their crowding.

There’s a large homeless encampment in the middle of downtown Toppenish, a small reservation town that tourism officials tout as “rugged” and “western.”

People call the encampment “the compound.” It is located on an empty lot bordered by the highway, and there are gas stations and fast-food restaurants nearby. Numbers fluctuate, but as many as 65 people might live there at a time. Apple bins are used as makeshift shelters.

Locals say more low-income housing is desperately needed, but the chances of this are uncertain.

Since the mid-1990s, a federal program has helped fund tribal housing for sovereign tribes, and many now rely heavily on it to build, manage and repair tribal housing projects.

But the Trump administration’s budget proposes slashing the housing department’s funding to Native American tribes by more than $50 million, even though for decades the funding overall has remained stagnant, essentially decreasing each year as a result of inflation, according to Walters, of the national housing council.

The lack of federal funding is a key reason why so many homes on reservations go long stretches without repairs and why it is difficult to increase the housing inventory.

Strong, the woman who was evicted, is grateful for the tiny house, but she knows it isn’t a long-term solution.

She is in the midst of trying to sell some shares of ancestral lands she inherited. It was a hard decision, letting go of land that connected her to her elders.

“But I chose to do that and that’s specifically to get my two grandchildren, who are here, back on their feet,” she said. “To get them a place to stay. A nice, clean place for them to stay. Hopefully that will help them start their walk in life.”

Lauren Dake reported this story for Outside in America, a series by the London-based Guardian on homelessness in the United States.

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