Like many recent vets, Jeremiah Miguel (Tohono O’odham) spent his time in the military (Army infantry specialist) with a tour in Iraq. When he returned to his southern Arizona Nation, he found himself not homeless in the strictest sense of the word, but living in very overcrowded conditions. Overcrowded as in a dozen or more people in the house with Miguel, his girlfriend, and his six children all in one room.
“For several months, the little ones slept in the bed, the others slept on a couch, and my girlfriend and I slept on the floor,” he says.
Then he discovered Tribal HUD VASH or Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing.
Statistics show that American Indian, Hispanic, and Asian households are more than three times as likely as the general U.S. population to reside in overcrowded conditions, defined in HUD terminology as “more than two people per bedroom.”
The Tohono O’odham Nation was selected as a grant recipient in the prototype VASH program. “There were only 20 some-odd tribes hand-selected from around the country to apply for the program,” says Pete Delgado, Executive Director of the Tohono O’odham Ki:Ki Housing Association. HUD awarded nearly $6 million to serve several hundred Native American veterans and the Nation received a grant of $303,000 to fund vouchers for 20 military personnel. Additionally, the tribe received $100,000 in VA funding for caseworker assistance with veteran employment efforts and a third pool of internal funds will be used to make up any additional costs not reimbursable via the vouchers.
“Veterans housing is a priority for us and these resources will enable us to improve these veterans lives in the most meaningful way,” says Delgado. Nation Chairman Edward Manuel adds: “Our veterans made tremendous sacrifices to serve our country. They deserve to live in quality, safe homes and this funding fulfills a previously unmet need in Indian country.”
The first two veterans placed in program housing included Miguel and retired Marine Alexander Valenzuela with another 10 military members pending final acceptance, according to Community Development Manager Art Lopez. “We initially had to re-define ‘homelessness’ as it related to our veterans. Most people think of ‘homeless’ as someone living on the street, not in extremely overcrowded conditions. When I would go into our districts to explain the program, the reaction was usually, ‘We’re not homeless, we have a roof over our head, just a lot of people under that roof.’ But when a dozen or more people are living in a three bedroom unit with most of them sleeping on a couch or the floor, those conditions qualify for VASH assistance.”
With no reservation housing dedicated to veterans, voucher recipients need to relocate off-Nation into urban areas in Tucson, Phoenix, or Casa Grande. “Depending on how this pilot program goes,” says Delgado, “we may give future consideration to veteran-specific housing on the reservation for those tribal members who don’t want to live in an urban area.”
Under VASH voucher terms, the veteran is required to pay a portion of the monthly rent. The Tohono O’odham Nation covers 100 percent of the rent payment and the veteran reimburses the tribe with 30 percent of his or her income. If the veteran is jobless with zero income, his portion of the rent is waived and a caseworker is assigned to assist in arranging job training and finding employment.
“I learned about the program just as it was announced as I was on my way to the VA office to look for work,” says Miguel. “It took just four days from the time I applied until the time we began to move in.”
The residence is a four-bedroom apartment, which allows the kids to double up and the adults to have a bedroom of their own. They’ve already made the place their own with toys in the yard, couches surrounding the TV, and a refrigerator menu announcing taco salad for supper. “It’s a huge step up from where we were before,” Miguel says.