Agency helps keep Detroit's American Indians alive

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LINCOLN PARK, Mich. - Without agencies like American Indian Services Inc. here, some Detroit-area Native people would face starvation, its director believes.

Fay Givens, the agency's executive director, sees hunger "all the time" here, just south of Detroit.

It feeds as many as 60 to 70 American Indians a month in the winter and she says there's never enough money.

The agency participates in a group called the Hunger Action Coalition, giving out gift certificates to be cashed in local grocery stores, but Givens says that money is gone in three days. Then she must use money from an emergency needs program, and finally refer them to other food pantries.

But Givens says her clients are reluctant to go to mainstream groups for food, fearing their children will be taken from them and placed in foster homes.

"What hurts the most is if we can't help them." Workers will even pass the hat to collect money for needy clients.

The agency serves Wayne County which includes the city of Detroit. Givens estimates there are at least 40,000 American Indians in the area, which includes those from Canada who freely cross the border because of provisions of the 18th century Jay Treaty.

She estimated the American Indians in Wayne County have a poverty level two and a half times any other ethnic population, and said "there's very little in the way of programs to help people." Some receive food stamps, but safety net programs like welfare are mostly a thing of the past.

Givens sees American Indian mothers suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome or depression who just can't keep jobs under welfare-to-work programs. They can qualify for Social Security disability which comes to $529 a month, and "you can't live anywhere, much less Detroit, on $529 a month."

She said the money goes to rent and the client has to scrounge for food.

Without agencies like hers and others, "People would literally starve."

The federal government gives assistance to a large number of Natives, but there's clear evidence of a significant dropoff in American Indians receiving food stamps and welfare, and a small decrease in the number of women, infants and children getting help through the WIC program - even as the American Indian population of the country went up by a large percentage during the 1990s.

During fiscal 1997, government figures show, 95,000 American Indian households received food stamp assistance. Those families had a total household population of 313,000. By FY 1999, those numbers shrank to 88,000 households and 281,000 people. The pro-rated dollar amount of assistance also shrank, from an aggregate of $22,740,000 to $20,546,000.

Welfare numbers show an even bigger drop. In fiscal 1996, the last full year of the old welfare program (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) 1.4 percent of 4.5 million total welfare families were American Indian. That number, approximately 63,000 families, shrank to 47,000 families in FY 1998 under the welfare reform program (Temporary Assistance to Needy Families) and for fiscal 1999 even farther, to about 40,000 families.

Doing similar calculations on the WIC program indicates a small dropoff, from about 123,000 American Indians getting assistance in FY 1996 to 120,000 in FY 1998. This has happened even as overall participation in the program rose 4 percent.

American Indian and Alaska Native populations increased by almost 20 percent in the last decade, to 2.475 million, the 2000 Census noted. (Another 400,000 are Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, the Census Bureau reported. And if those who classify themselves as partly Native are included, the number rises to an even 5 million.