New Center in Duluth Offers Housing for Natives Hoping to Start New Lives

A story about a new apartment building in Duluth, Minnesota that caters to American Indians hoping to start new lives.

Gimaajii Mino Bimaadiziyaan is an Oijbwe phrase that means, “Together we are beginning a new life.”

A unique organization is doing just that for homeless Native people in Duluth, Minnesota. Gimaajii Mino Bimaadiziyaan, scheduled to open its doors to the public on April 11, embarks on its mission to help Native people begin new lives. It is one of the first projects of its kind in the nation that offers permanent supportive housing and an American Indian Center under the same roof. Located in the historic, renovated Duluth YWCA building, Gimaajii can house up to 150 adults and children in a variety of units ranging from one-room efficiencies to three-bedroom apartments.

It is also the first full-scale American Indian Center owned by a Native organization in Duluth. There have been a handful of smaller, grassroots Indian centers located in rental offices that have provided services to the Native community, but Gimaaji will be the first “one-stop shopping” location for Native people in Duluth, says Sherry Sanchez Tibbetts, executive director of the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO). AICHO, which developed the project, serves as the owner and coordinator of Gimaajii. In addition to housing and social services, the center will feature an art gallery, gymnasium, wellness center for mainstream and traditional healing and space for Native cultural activities for children and adults.

AICHO, established in 1994, is a nonprofit that serves survivors of domestic violence and those who have experienced homelessness and poverty. Currently AICHO operates an emergency shelter for Native people, Dabinoo’Igan (a place where you are safe, comforted and sheltered) and transitional housing for Native women who have been battered, Oshki Odaadiziwini Waaka’Igan (a place where we dream of new beginnings).

Homelessness is one of the greatest problems for the Native community in Duluth, says Sanchez Tibbetts who notes that although only 2.4 percent of the city’s total population is Native (about 3,000 people), it comprises 33 percent of the homeless population. A needs-assessment study of the Native community conducted by the Wilder Research Center, “Anishinabe abi in Duluth,” (May the original people forever be at home in Duluth) found that many Native people who were able to find housing in the city were spending much more than 30 percent of their net income to do so.

All of the units in Gimaajii are spoken for and families began moving in April. In a telling commentary on the need for more housing in Duluth, Sanchez Tibbetts reports that there has been a waiting list of more than 200 applicants for units at Gimaajii since October 2011.

AICHO is hiring 16 additional employees to staff Gimaajii, including case managers, administrators and receptionists. The case managers will provide a safety net for residents, working with them to address issues that have contributed to their homelessness. According to Sanchez Tibbetts, residents’ needs may include dealing with mental health problems or addiction, reunifying with other family members, learning healthy ways to address conflict, help with applying for jobs or social security, getting back into school, transportation needs, finding child care and others. 

“We expect to see a lot of walk-ins and phone calls from people,” she says. “At AICHO we already receive many calls for food, shelter and health care because Native people know our name.

“We will refer people for needs that we can’t provide at Gimaajii and do follow-ups. Sometimes it’s just a matter of people having someone to listen to them who recognizes them as a person rather than just a case file.”

For referrals Gimaajii will partner with St. Louis County and the Center for American Indian Resources, an Indian Health Services clinic in Duluth run by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Minnesota. “We hope Gimaajii will be a happy place for Indian people who come to Duluth, providing them with a good place to get started,” says Dr. Robert Powless of the Oneida Tribe of Wisconsin, a longtime member of Duluth’s American Indian Commission.

More than six years ago, Powless and other members of the commission helped launch plans for an Indian center in Duluth that would address the Native community’s primary need for housing. Powless, the recently retired University of Minnesota Duluth American Indian Studies Department head, has lived in the area since 1972. He and his wife Linda donated $50,000 to the creation of Gimaajii.

Putting together financial support for Gimaajii has been a wonder of funding innovation. “Over a period of five years, we pieced funding together from 19 different mainstream and tribal sources,” says Sanchez Tibbetts.

The total budget for Gimaajii is $8.5 million. The Minnesota Housing Finance Agency (MHFA), committed to giving more than $3.5 million. That includes $270,000 for day to day operations beyond the cost of getting Gimaajii up and running, according to Rick Smith of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe. Smith is the Indian housing liaison for the MHFA. “Minnesota has a state initiative to address homelessness in general, so our agency has become a high priority for state appropriations,” he notes.

MHFA is a state agency that finances and advances affordable housing opportunities for low- and moderate-income Minnesotans.

Smith confesses to a bit of initial concern over the feasibility of such a large project undertaken by a small organization like AICHO. “They had the will and the drive to help meet all of their goals. We are thrilled with the project,” he says. “Numerous times people wanted to throw in the towel, but people like Zoe LeBeau championed the cause, keeping people on task.”

LeBeau is a senior program manager at the Corporation for Supportive Housing and has been involved with the Gimaajii project from the very beginning, helping to identify the center’s location, and find a construction manager and architect as well as pitching in as an advocate garnering support between mainstream and tribal groups.

“The tribal communities have been amazing. They offered financial as well as public support, making it clear that Gimaajii was a priority for their reservations, “ she says.

The Grand Portage Band of Ojibwe, the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community, the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe are all supporters of Gimaajii. The Leech Lake Band and Minnesota Chippewa Tribe will both have tribal offices in the Gimaajii building.

LeBeau who works primarily with urban Indian homeless populations says there is often a disconnect between reservation and urban Indians especially in terms of social services. She hopes that Gimaajii can serve as a model to address homelessness for other urban Indian communities. “Gimaajii has brought the two communities together in ways I haven’t seen anywhere else in the country,” she says.

The Fond du Lac tribe provides an excellent example. Located just a few miles from Duluth, the tribe will be using some of its housing resources to fund six units at Gimaajii for Band members who face chronic and long-term homelessness. “We consider this to be an innovative use of our resources. Rather than requiring members to return to the reservation to get services, we support our members where they are at now,” says Karen Diver, Fond du Lac chairwoman.

The creation of Gimaajii and its location in the former YWCA building has provided Diver with a unique “full circle” moment. She served as the executive director of the YWCA for 11 years before becoming chairwoman on the Fond du Lac reservation. She is also a founding member of AICHO and was involved with the organization’s very first project, to create emergency housing for Native women and children.

Seeing AICHO grow into its current ownership and management role with Gimaajii has been especially exciting and satisfying for Diver. Not only does Gimaajii make a good beginning on meeting the Native community’s housing needs, it also provides a much needed base for Indian people in Duluth. “Gimaajii establishes a hub for the urban Indian population in Duluth,” she notes.

Powless agrees. “Gimaajii will be a place where Indian people, regardless of tribal affiliation, can get encouragement and guidance.”