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Indian housing - Not always shelter

WASHINGTON - Much of the current housing in Indian country cannot shelter
its inhabitants from illness and social dysfunction.

That's the evidence gathered in a white paper issued by the National
American Indian Housing Council as national attention focused on the
opening of the National Museum of the American Indian.

The group has challenged the federal government's health agencies, such as
the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Health and Human
Services, "to seriously address these issues." And while many of the
observations piggyback on a study NAIHC did last year on the problem of
overcrowded Native housing, the white paper is devastatingly specific on
how lives and whole generations can be blighted by horrific living
conditions.

"Twenty-one thousand, or 7 percent, of homes in Indian country lack access
to both safe drinking water and basic sanitation. This easily leads to
diarrhea, hepatitis A and other water-borne diseases," according to the
group. And poor housing can help cause or aggravate "social dysfunctions,
creating an environment in which activities that most Americans consider
routine, such as a child doing homework, or having a consistent place to
sleep, become a major challenge," the report continued.

"Approximately 90,000 Native families are homeless or underhoused," said
NAIHC in its white paper, "Home Not Sweet: The Effect of Poor Housing
Conditions on Native Americans and Their Children."

The Washington-based group cited the U.S. Civil Rights Commission as saying
that there is a current need for 200,000 more housing units right now in
Indian country.

"Overcrowding and substandard housing go hand in hand in Indian country,"
according to the report. "Many tribal people are caught in a downward
spiral. Given a shortage of housing - as well as a shortage of economic
opportunity or the means to seek or create it - they must accept shelter in
whatever shape they find it. It may have been built with inferior materials
or poor craftsmanship, and be badly in need of modernization."

That housing is likely to be overcrowded as well. The report said Native
people are six times more likely to live in overcrowded or inadequate
housing as the nation as a whole.

According to a survey NAIHC took in early September of its 242 Indian
housing authorities and tribally designated housing entities (62
responded), nearly 60 percent reported overcrowded housing, and 83 percent
reported substandard housing on their reservations.

Just about all respondents reported adverse health effects on their members
from substandard housing. Some of the conditions responsible include
inadequate insulation (59 percent rated this as prevalent on their
homelands); lack of proper sewage treatment, 46 percent; mold, 36 percent;
and lack of clean water, 30 percent.

Nearly all the NAIHC survey respondents blamed poor housing conditions for
illnesses ranging from colds, flu, chicken pox or measles. But more than
that, these respondents pegged inadequate housing to larger health concerns
that can breed societal problems. These included breathing problems, mental
health, self-esteem and recurrent anxiety.

These problems have hurt Indian children's performance in school, many of
the respondents feel. Also, limited space for study becomes a problem in
overcrowded housing. Lack of sleep is also prevalent and affects their
school performance. And, the search for decent housing sometimes leads
families to frequent moves, causing the disruption of changing schools as
well.

The NAIHC respondents reported that their youth suffer from many societal
problems, including teenage pregnancy, dropping out, alcoholism and drug
abuse.

But they also had a few ideas for improving the situation, which include
more funding, more education, and better coordination between government
agencies.

One respondent said that tenants should be required to take counseling as a
requirement of being given housing assistance.