Homeless Urban Natives Receive Help From Rez Natives

“There were overdoses nearly every day in the grim homeless encampment near downtown. Diseases spread, with upward of 200 people cramming into dozens of tents. Fears rose among activists and the mostly Native American population living there that the city would crack down, which for them would have echoed the country’s dark history of treating indigenous people with force and contempt.” J. Eligon, The New York Times

Homeless. photo-mprnews.org

Excerpt: Native American Homeless Crisis in Minnesota Inspires an Unlikely Alliance, by J. Eligon, NYT

“But then, an unlikely solution surfaced.

Red Lake Nation, a tribe some four and a half hours’ drive north, offered to help build temporary shelters on land it had bought two years ago for a permanent housing development in the city. Other tribes in Minnesota supported Red Lake’s shelter proposal, forming a partnership to help win concessions from local officials and secure emergency relief.

James Cross comforts Yvonne after she became emotional while talking about her situation. Star Tribune

It was a rare show of unity by tribal nations to resolve an urban crisis, Native advocates said. And it represented a potential turning point in the sometimes distant relationship between Native Americans who live in urban areas and those who choose to remain on reservations…The majority of American Indians live in cities, although very little federal funding is directed specifically toward them. Tribal governments do receive federal dollars, but they usually go toward life on the reservation. There is rarely enough to expand resources and services needed in urban areas, where Native Americans often lack basic housing.

The homeless encampment in Minneapolis.

Clarista Johnson, 20, lived on the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe reservation. When her grandfather died, she said, she left drug treatment to mourn with her family, but then fell out with her aunt and boyfriend. Both of her parents were incarcerated. She considered her prospects on the reservation to be bleak, so she left for Minneapolis, about two hours south. ‘I thought maybe the cities would have more resources, more options,’ she said. Instead, she continued her struggles with meth and heroin addiction, and had no place to live.

For the past five months, she had been staying here at the encampment, in the city’s Native American corridor. Orange buckets for disposing used needles were scattered about and mangled tents were pitched beneath a noisy thoroughfare, the scent of burning wood choking the air. An elderly man limped around barefoot, his feet stiff…Roughly eight out of 10 American Indians do not live on reservations. The mass migration to cities, experts say, was prompted by the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, when the federal government, attempting to assimilate Native people, offered them incentives to leave their reservations. But assurances of opportunity gave way to discrimination, isolation, dead-end jobs and poor living conditions that continue today.

In September, after negotiations between Native-led nonprofits and the city failed to yield an agreement on a site for temporary shelters to address the homeless encampment, Sam Strong, the Red Lake Nation secretary, offered the tribe’s property, a solution that was quickly accepted…The parcel of land is just south of downtown. The tribe plans to build a complex with 110 units of affordable housing, and is expected to break ground next summer. It will also offer social services and cultural events, such as drum circles, Mr. Strong said…Ms. Johnson moved into the new temporary shelter late last week, and she now sleeps in one of its heated dome-like tents.  She can come and go as she pleases 24 hours a day and not be turned away, even if she is high — a policy that Native leaders pushed for to ensure a welcoming environment.

But Maggie Thunder Hawk, 56, worried that officials would eventually introduce onerous restrictions. She said that the facility ‘looks and feels like jail.’ She would give it a try, she said, but if she did not like it, ‘I’m going right back outside.’

When Red Lake breaks ground on its housing complex next summer, the temporary shelters will have to come down, and many former encampment dwellers, including Ms. Johnson, may find themselves back on the streets.”

Category: Culture