Skip to main content

Homeless Shelters Help Indians by Using Native Wisdom and Spirituality

Shawn Whitewolfe, a Northern Cheyenne in his early 30s, has lived on the streets of Billings, Montana for the past six months. He says he’s homeless not because of alcoholism, but because of a small tragedy—“My house got burned down. Everything I owned was in there. All of my art material, my art portfolio, IDs, and my puppy named—of all things—Oreo.”

Whitewolfe and two companions had been staying at a local mental health center during the winter because of the cold, but they wore out their welcome, and he now roams the streets at night, trying to stay warm when temperatures drop. “You’d be surprised by the places we sleep in,” he says. “You don’t see them while driving around, but we know every nook and cranny we might be able to sleep in to survive.” Whitewolfe says he spends most of his days looking for his next drink and bite to eat instead of looking for a job.

Alcoholism and homelessness are commingled problems plaguing the Indian community: Four percent of the homeless in the United States are Native American although Natives are only 1 percent of the general population; according to a 2008 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 11.7 percent of deaths among Native Americans and Alaska Natives between 2001 and 2005 were tied to alcohol, and 66 percent of these deaths happened to people younger than 50. By comparison, overall U.S. alcohol-related deaths were 3.3 percent. In a February 2011 report sent to the Department of Health and Human Services, the National Congress of American Indians requested, “additional funding be provided for alcohol and substance abuse programs and community-based prevention activities.” For Whitewolfe and many others like him, hopes for a better life fade as they slip into a cycle of alcohol addiction. Because of budget cuts and limited funding many health services shun potentially problematic addicts, who tend to eat up a disproportionate share of their resources.

However, when resources are devoted to the less-fortunate in a culturally significant way—along with the commitment of strong individuals—they can pay dividends not only for the homeless, but for all of us.

The Transformer
Andrew Boyd, a 22-year-old Inupiat from Bellingham, Washington, had drifted from one homeless shelter to another in the Seattle area since he was 19 while constantly staying inebriated. “Then there was one day when I had been drinking for like a whole week straight, and I realized I wasn’t doing anything with my life,” he says. “It was just the same thing every day.”
Boyd sought help from a local Seattle Christian group, which recommended the Labateyah Youth Home, which has 25 beds for homeless young adults ages 18 to 22. It was founded in 1992 by the late activist Bernie Whitebear, Sin Aikst, after he realized that a disproportionate number of Seattle area’s young homeless population was Native, and that many of them were in such distress because they had been unable to adjust to life in the city.

The Labateyah name derives from a Northwest Salishan legend in which a spiritual being named Labateyah, literally translated as “transformer,” changes people and himself into other objects and beings. “We adopted that name with the idea that the youth who come here will make positive changes and transformations in their life,” says Labateyah Youth Home Director Jenna Gearhart. “The center was opened as a program that would have cultural relevance. Youth would feel comfortable, Native values would resonate, and they’d be able to stay and invest in the program and work on their education, employment and then permanent housing.”

Because it’s federally funded, it’s open to all ethnicities; Gearhart says most of the young people she deals with are of mixed racial background and about 30 percent of the home’s residents are Natives.

Residents meet bimonthly with an advocate to go over goals and their plans to achieve them, and counseling and other treatment methods are offered for those struggling with addictions. Boyd says they’ve recently started having sweat ceremonies, which are very popular. Labateyah sponsors the annual SeaFair Indian Days Pow Wow in July, and residents are bussed to local pow wows almost every week. In addition, Native guest speakers are brought in to speak to them. Residents have to maintain 30 hours a week of school and/or work. “They also have to do a living skills group, where they learn things like how to manage money, how to put together a good resume; or it can consist of personal things, like managing stress or health issues, or even getting certified for CPR,” Gearhart says.

When residents find a job, Labateyah invests 30 percent of their wages into a savings account that will pay for future housing. Some residents leave the home in a matter of months, while others, like Boyd, plan to use the full 18 months allotted to them to get their lives straightened out. He has been at Labateyah since January, and is grateful to have a room to call his own while he completes his GED and looks for work. “We can store our personal belongings instead of having to carry them everywhere,” he says. “It doesn’t look good when you’re going to apply for work and have all your possessions with you.”

Boyd hopes to get his own apartment before enlisting in the military or AmeriCorps. Instead of drinking to escape life, he says he now writes poetry to find himself.

Gearhart says several former Labateyah residents have gone on to get college degrees, and that they now want to repay their debt. “A lot of them have come through a lot of difficulty,” she says, “and they tell me they want to do social service work because they want to give back to the community the way they had been helped here.”

Talking Circle
Richard Martel, a Canadian Cree and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless (CCH) Program Coordinator, says the idea seemed easy enough to incorporate: Every Monday at noon, Native homeless would gather in downtown Denver to talk about what was on their minds in the Native American Talking Circle. A Wednesday meeting would cater to females at the well-known women and children’s day shelter called the Gathering Place. Martel explains that Indian nations have always gathered in a circle to speak—one person at a time—about spiritual, judicial and civic matters. The hope was that the city’s homeless would feel empowered when others in their situation listened to them.

Scroll to Continue

Read More

Two summers ago, the CCH implemented that plan, and the downtown Talking Circle meeting grew from six to 60 participants in just a few months. “We’ve ended up as a quasi-therapeutic social setting where people come together and anybody is free to express whatever their heart, their mind, or whatever their spirit moves them too,” Martel says. “They can either make good expressions like, ‘I’ve got a job—or a house!’ or it can be something negative, like running from an abusive situation.”

The four tenets of the Talking Circle are: Every nation is welcome; all participants can speak freely in confidentiality without

fear of judgment; all participants will offer support and encouragement; transcendence is the goal for all. “We all work toward getting ahead and taking a step up—even if it’s just a little one,” Martel says. “Our goal is to move ahead, and that’s the basis of our circle.”

The impact among Native homeless in the area has been profoundly positive. Homeless organizations from South Dakota to New Mexico call up to ask Martel about the Talking Circle because they’ve heard about it from former participants. “It surprises me because, really, the circle is so simple,” Martel says. “It’s not any highfalutin, fantastic, well-designed, brainy type of thing. It’s just a basic, Indian-friendly setting, and that’s all. Yet, word of mouth about the program has spread right outside of the state. We have young women asking about the circle who come to town with no plan, no money, no goals, and no idea of what they’re going to do. All they bring with them are the clothes on their back, the bruises on their face and body, and a little baby,” Martel says. “They show up looking for some safety, running away from that bad thing back home.’?”

Native women came to the Gathering Place for years, often doing nothing more than getting breakfast and then grabbing a few bus tokens before heading back out to the streets, ignoring most of the resources it had to offer them. “They felt they weren’t included until the Talking Circle came there,” Martel says. “Now they’re engaging in several of the other programs and making more progress with their lives because they feel they’re very much a part of the place.”

Although the Talking Circle has helped people come out of their shells, Martel realizes it’s not a cure-all and that Denver’s homeless need much more than just talking. He also knows that the limited funding for the Talking Circle is due to run out this month, so he has been lobbying for private donations in hopes of expanding the program to include case managers, housing, and education opportunities that include social skills training.

Martel says, “As critical as the Talking Circle is to spiritual healing, I’d like to help homeless Natives in all areas of their life so that they can become a productive members of society while maintaining their cultural background, not giving all that up just to move ahead in the dominant society.”

The People’s Home
For the down-and-out alcoholic Natives in Minneapolis, it seemed there was nowhere to escape from the elements this winter save for jails cells and emergency rooms. And in the harsh winter climate of Minnesota, having no warm place to sleep could mean death.

Rather than cast Native alcoholics away, the Anishinabe Wakiagun—or “the People’s Home,” as translated from the Anishinabe language—invites chronic inebriates to stay at their 45-bedroom home, providing a safe and healthy environment for them. It was the brainchild of Gordon Thayer and Robert Albee, and opened up in 1996. Michael Goze (Ho-Chunk), the chief executive officer of the American Indian Community Development Corporation (AICDC) that owns the Anishinabe Wakiagun, explains, “It really was a community response to a number of deaths, and a basic unmet need regarding the homeless. It was also a safety issue. People would get drunk and wind up in bad situations—both men and women—and they became victims. It really came down to a humanitarian plea: People deserved a place to live. You shouldn’t have to have a particular behavior to warrant housing.”

To qualify for a stay at Anishinabe Wakiagun a person must have been homeless for at least one year; had four episodes of homelessness in the past three years; seven or more detox’s in the past year; four alcohol-related trips to the emergency room; and have health-related issues due to alcoholism. More than 20 percent of the home’s tenants referrals come from detox centers and various agencies, while 75 percent of them are self-referrals—all are given rooms on a first-come, first-serve basis.
Because these Native alcoholics now have a place to live, Minnesota public services are less stretched in the Hennepin County downtown area, which is where the Anishinabe Wakiagun is located. The AICDC claims the home saves taxpayers in the downtown area more than $500,000 a year by reducing arrests by 23 percent, emergency room visits by 20 percent, and detox admissions by 85 percent, and also freed up the police force, since many of the residents were previously being picked up by the police repeatedly. Unless there’s another legal issue involved, police now generally take the homeless alcoholics they encounter to Anishinabe Wakiagun rather than jail.

Nokia Buck, who has worked at the center for seven years says, “This isn’t a homeless shelter; it’s a supportive housing home. This is actually their house.” She says most residents are constantly intoxicated and are even allowed to drink in their rooms.
“Alcoholism is a disease,” AICDC Administration Office Manager Janet Graham explains. “People have to realize that alcoholics are not going to stop drinking just because we want them to. One way or the other, they’re going to drink. If we’re going to kick them out every time they’re having a drink or sneak one in, then we’re really not trying to help keep them in housing. They’d be out sleeping under bridges and in the streets.”

Although activities like movies, arts and crafts, pow wows and weekly Alcoholics Anonymous activities are available, participation is not required. Graham says the number one purpose for the home is not to treat the addiction but rather to provide a roof over the head of those that do imbibe. “If and when they want to quit, at least they’ll have the means, security and safety of a home to do it in,” she says.

They’ve occasionally discharged people for violent behavior, but generally try to roll with these people and their problems. “We have problems with them following rules, because they are alcoholics,” Graham says, “so we try to be as strict as we can be, with the understanding that sometimes, when they’re inebriated, things happen.

“We see them as people that need help as much as anyone else. They’re worthy people. I see them as somebody’s brother, mother, sister, uncle.… They’re good people. I don’t see why we wouldn’t serve them.”