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How Can Housing Strategies Effectively Center Urban American Indian Mental Health and Homelessness?

The combination of displacement and relocation of Native families to urban areas has created enduring housing disparities and barriers to healthy, secure, and culturally appropriate housing (PDF). Derrick Belgarde is the executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the housing and human services for urban American Indian and Alaska Native people. He is also an enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon and Chippewa-Cree from Rocky Boy, Montana. In his role, he draws on his own experience of homelessness, addiction, and recovery to address housing barriers in urban Native communities. He overviews some of the related issues of health, housing instability, and pathways forward for Native people living in urban areas.

How has the US’s historical treatment and policies influenced the health and well-being of Native peoples and their access to safe, stable, and welcoming housing?

It’s interwoven and connected at every level, throughout the history of colonization and destruction of our communities. There were very intentional efforts to break down our families and communities. Genocide was the first attempt. But when it was proven that we weren’t going to just die, it became a policy issue. Many policies were all about getting our land and every natural resource. But they also aimed to kill off the Native people by forcing us into the mainstream culture, to lose our identity. The Termination Act and the relocation programs, which started taking Natives off of reservations and putting them in the urban city, means that today more than three-fourths of Native Americans live in urban cities rather than reservations. These programs were just traps that promised upward mobility; you’re going to go there, learn a trade, get beautiful housing in a beautiful city. But when you got there, you were left alone. No resources, no job training, no nothing. It caused a lot of Natives to leave their homelands to urban settings and has led to a lot of the urban Native homelessness and housing insecurity that we see today.

What is your cultural understanding of the connection between housing and health, and how does this perspective align or differ from mainstream concepts in the US?

It’s very holistic. The most communal feeling I’ve ever had in my life is when I go back to ceremony every year in Manitoba. You go out there for a week, and you’re out there in community, and it’s just this amazing feeling of love... Being together in that way. Home is not necessarily four walls, a roof, and a heater. Home is community, a place of belonging, a place of safety. Not just physical safety, of course that also too, but the safety of feeling like you belong, like you’re not an outsider. If you don’t have that, you’re never going to have a home, just a place where you sleep or maybe keep you out of the elements.

Here in King County, we’re less than 2 percent of the general population, but we make up 30 percent of the chronic homeless rate, and 15 percent of the overall homeless rate. The data also shows that we’re less likely to receive services and supports from mainstream organizations. It’s not because they are excluding us intentionally, though I think there is a lot of racism embedded in the process. But it’s because Natives don’t feel safe utilizing these places, don’t feel safe walking in the door. We have been so traumatized that we need Native-specific spaces. Our mission is to provide [that] sacred space, to nurture and strengthen the spirt of our people. It’s not just about housing or feeding people, it’s about creating that powerful sense of belonging.

In what ways can housing policymakers support Native communities to develop sustainable housing communities that honor traditional knowledge and cultural ways of living?

I don’t believe in segregation at all. But the Fair Housing Act is a double-edged sword. The data shows that we are a very vulnerable population. Our statistics of health, poverty, and housing security keep getting worse. Until we can start healing our community in a way that is meaningful and sustainable, it’s going to keep getting worse because 600 years of oppression and genocide has left us in a state of PTSD and trauma, which makes us skittish and removed from non-Native systems. We need Native-specific housing if we are going to really heal our community. It’s really hard to be a Native American in a big city when as far as you know, you may be the only Native person living in your building, neighborhood, or community. There are no places where Natives go kick it, no community center. All the things a person and community needs in order to thrive.

How does homelessness among Native Peoples in the US differ on and off tribal lands, and how do social safety nets and community interconnectedness impact their vulnerability to homelessness?

There are some similarities in urban and more rural reservation settings. I spoke with a tribe who had a big encampment right outside of the reservation and some council members advocated bringing the people in this encampment back home to get connected to services. But others were upset, why are we wasting our tribal resources when we’ve got single parents who are working minimum wage jobs? Why isn’t our money going for subsidies to pay their rents? We have the same issues in our buildings in Seattle. They don’t understand that people would be living under a bridge, dying in the cold if we didn’t provide housing. Our goal is to achieve functional zero with chronic single-adult street homelessness by 2030, then we can pivot to broader homelessness work, but we aren’t there yet. In any case, sometimes it causes friction with the response we’ve chosen. Homelessness has may nuances and is very complex.

The difference is our resources and approach models. Tribes are sovereign nations and they can create their programs the way they want, whereas our funding is limited under rules and expectations. But our strengths to our work are our approaches to trauma-informed care, harm reduction, and low-barrier models. You can’t expect sobriety if you want somebody to get basic life-saving services.… People will choose to be on the streets, in encampments, rather than coming indoors or receiving care.

Whether it’s on reservations or off, drug addiction, people who were raised in poverty, who had parents that were in boarding schools or parents that were abused themselves... all of these experiences are stacked against you. I don’t know if there’s enough lived experience in this space to have the power to influence decisionmaking. I believe the main reason I thrive in my role here is due to my lived experience. But I often think about, how are we going to solve and heal our community as Native people collectively if we don’t all get on the same page? We can definitely make life better for the next generation, and I think things are getting better. But it’s going to be an intergenerational effort to heal our community the way that we need to be.

What do you consider the most pressing priorities to address the housing needs of Native populations and promote better public health outcomes? Could you share successful strategies and initiatives you’ve encountered?

There’s a lot of diversity within the housing sphere that we need. What we’re building now in Seattle is permanent supportive housing with services on site to help people maintain housing. You have case managers, mental health supports, and other services built in. But there are people that just need subsidized housing, not a case manager, just some help with the rent or workforce training. We also need homebuyership programs. As a community, we need to build and develop our portfolio throughout that whole spectrum.

When you build housing and systems, you have to build them in a way that makes sense for Native people. Create activities, programs, opportunities that are also culturally specific and knowledgeable. Know that housing is just one element of everything that’s going on, because we look at all of this as healing. The housing models that work include cultural programming. For example, we believe in traditional mental health practices, which involves sharing space with your family and talking openly. That’s healing, that’s medicine. Connecting back to your family and community. To do this, we hire mental health professionals who value our traditions and practice ceremony. People who understand our plant medicine. I’m not saying that this works for all Native people. But collectively, those type of systems work far better for our us.

Intergenerational living, community housing, and co-op models have shown to be successful for our Native communities. I went to Minneapolis recently to tour a project that had multiple buildings, and each one of the buildings has different stipulations. One building is for tenants struggling with alcohol, another building for tenants struggling with opiates, and another for those wishing to be sober. I remember just touring this… and everybody’s asked questions about how does that work? How can you have a building project where one of your buildings right next to another one building is sober? Because you have tailored resources there that keep you connected to community. If someone relapses, they may move into another building, get the services they need, and not lose their community.