WASHINGTON – A new bill in Congress aims to help disabled Native American veterans and their families maintain housing assistance.
The bill is meant to amend an oversight in the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act that has caused disabled veterans, their families and survivors to be denied help because they are receiving veterans’ and survivor benefits.
NAHASDA first passed Congress in 1996 in an effort to help Indian country communities more easily access grants for housing.
“It’s a problem that needs to be rectified immediately.” – Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.
Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz., the lead sponsor of the legislation, said the problem was first explained to her by members of the Navajo Nation.
“The flaw causes veterans’ benefits to be counted as income,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s a problem that needs to be rectified immediately.”
The congresswoman has previously shown her commitment to Native veterans by introducing legislation making it easier for them and other former service members living in rural areas to access health care options, and she has honored the passing of Navajo code talkers.
A press release from Kirkpatrick’s office explained that NAHASDA has produced many benefits, but said it still has flaws, especially pertaining to Native veterans.
Namely, assistance under the law is limited to families making less than 80 percent of the median income in their area. Also, the act treats compensation for veterans with service-related disabilities or for the families of those killed in service, as income.
As a result, these benefits can push veterans and survivor families above the limit, making them ineligible and costing them needed assistance.
The penalty is particularly hard on the seriously disabled in Indian country, as there are generally few or no private housing options on tribal lands.
Kirkpatrick’s office said the worse injury a Native veteran suffers, the less likely he or she is to receive assistance under NAHASDA as it is now written.
“Native American veterans have sacrificed so much for this country, and they should not be punished for getting the benefits they have been promised. It is time to right this wrong and ensure our fighting men and women are not disadvantaged by their service.”
She said the bill would change the definition of income to specifically exclude veterans’ compensation and survivor benefits, ending a practice Kirkpatrick believes has been unfair.
Kirkpatrick didn’t know the number of tribes that would benefit from the bill, but she believes all 11 tribal nations in her state would welcome a change.
She is hopeful that other members of Congress will quickly move to sign on to the legislation. She is now in the process of explaining the bill to other lawmakers in an attempt to get support.
Thus far, Kirkpatrick has heard from several Native Americans who are grateful she introduced legislation.
One of them is James Cates, chair of the National Native American Veterans Association.
“I couldn’t agree more with the idea of the bill. It’s nice to know that we’ve got someone in our corner in Congress, rather than ‘politics is usual.’”
Cates is regularly in contact with Congress members in his home state of Texas, but they rarely pay attention to the concerns of Native veterans.
Officials with the Native veteran group plan to push for passage of Kirkpatrick’s bill, Cates added.
“If there is anything we can do to help the process along, we are glad to do it.”
Mellor Willie, director of the American Indian Housing Council, said members of his group will also work to get the legislation passed.
“We have heard this is a problem throughout Indian country, while these veterans are some of the neediest, and need the NAHASDA money most.”
He believes many members of Congress will see the bill as reasonable.
“It’s about paying homage and respect to those who have served for us,” Willie said. “Who could be against that?”