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Homeless Native Americans get federal focus

WASHINGTON – Reducing homelessness among Native Americans is a goal of a new plan launched by the Obama administration.

Billed as “the nation’s first comprehensive strategy to prevent and end homelessness,” the plan is called Opening Doors. It was launched June 22 under the leadership of several federal agencies, including the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness.

The aim is to put the country on a path to end veterans and chronic homelessness by 2015, and to end homelessness among children, families, and youth by 2020. Strategies emphasized include increasing leadership, collaboration, and civic engagement; increasing access to stable and affordable housing; increasing economic security; improving health and stability; and retooling the homeless response system.

Research currently indicates that Native American communities face disproportionately high rates of homelessness, something that federal officials said they want to account for under the plan. According to 2009 Annual Homeless Assessment Report from the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development, American Indians make up eight percent of the country’s homeless population.

“It is something that we thought about a lot; working with Indian country is front and center on my mind,” said Jennifer Ho, USICH deputy director, noting that she’s personally worked with tribal communities on a variety of homelessness issues.

Ho said the plan incorporated tribal input and specifically mentions the need for unique attention to reservation and urban Indians. She said there is a special need for cultural competence in these areas.

Ho posited that poverty, a lack of affordable housing, and the large number of Native Americans who are veterans might contribute to the high rates of homelessness observed in the Indian population.

In recent years, more than 300 communities nationwide, including some tribal ones, have developed plans that are successfully curbing homelessness, according to federal researchers. It’s these kinds of plans that the federal initiative is intended to replicate – and their existence gives Ho strong hope that homelessness can be completely eradicated.

“You’re talking to somebody who believes it is definitely possible.”

Karen Diver, chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota, also has hope, noting that her tribe recently opened 24 supportive housing units for struggling families by partially using Department of Housing and Urban Development funding.

“Native homelessness is an issue that’s near and dear to my heart,” the tribal leader said, adding that she is proud her community had been able to offer homes to those in need.

In terms of the federal plan, Diver said that once concrete rules come out to enforce the plan, it will be important for federal staffers to look at tribal control and decision-making in their development process.

To date, Diver explained that many tribes have faced complications in terms of funding to combat homelessness, given federal formulas that emphasize nonprofit giving.

“Tribes need to have the capacity to take on new initiatives, and HUD block grants can’t do it alone,” Diver said. She suggested federal funding needs to be made available to tribes under the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.

“We want the federal funding stream to be opened up,” she said, adding that accountability from the Obama administration could do much to aid tribal communities.

George Stone, a director with the Corporation for Supportive Housing in Minnesota, said the federal plan will no doubt help tribal communities, but he believes it comes up short in some areas.

“Much of the groundwork for addressing homelessness in Native lands is included in the report but, overall, it is short on specifics. So what we need to do is go through each of the 10 objectives and ask ourselves, ‘How do we apply this to Native lands?’”

Stone said his organization, which includes the American Indian Supportive Housing Initiative, will be working with the government to ensure that tribal concerns are addressed.

The full Opening Doors plan is online at www.usich.gov.