Special to Indian Country Today
ETHETE, Wyoming — Pamela Lock was running out of options.
She’d been a school bus driver on the Wind River Reservation when the pandemic hit. Her son was away at college but was sent home because of the shutdown.
Her household bills and his apartment lease continued to pile up.
“If kids don’t go to school, I don’t work,” Lock, Northern Arapaho, told Indian Country Today.
Then she and her son were encouraged to apply for pandemic relief funds through a special emergency program run by the Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Department. They are now among more than 300 applicants approved so far to receive about $830,000 in funds – an average of about $2,400 each.
She said doesn’t know what she would have done without the aid.
“I’m just really thankful that we were able to apply, because it really did help,” she said.
The program began accepting applications in March to distribute federal COVID-19 relief funding to people with housing needs. In contrast, the state of Wyoming — which launched its program about a month later — has completed just 59 applications and distributed $172,000 in funds.
“I'll just be frank,” said Lynnette Grey Bull, Northern Arapaho and Hunkpapa Lakota, who oversees the department’s Emergency Rental Assistance Program. “For those of us who live here at the Wind River Reservation, we have more than one generation in one house.
“We have houses anywhere from one bedroom, two to three bedrooms, and we're looking at anywhere from two to four families in one house.”
Starting at ground zero
The entrance to the Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Department is designed as a teepee, a fitting structure for a tribal housing building. White metal rods illustrate the teepee poles and red shade panels represent the buckskin cover.
Inside, toward the back of the building, is Grey Bull’s office, where she established the department’s program after being hired in February. It became the first Emergency Rental Assistance Program to launch in the state.
Renters, like Lock’s son, have struggled during the pandemic, with many jobs temporarily suspended or scaled back in restaurants, bars and other service industries. Some workers, like Lock, have decided to retire during the pandemic.
According to the White House’s State-by-State Fact Sheets, the lack of affordable housing in Wyoming forces many tenants to spend about 30 percent or more of their income on rent. Additionally, the National Low Income Housing Coalition said the state government struggled during the first phase of the program to reach renters but has made changes this time around based on the coalition’s suggestions.
The program is part of the second phase of the Emergency Rental Assistance program initiated under the American Rescue Plan, which set aside $25 billion for renters across the nation and $797.6 million for tribal communities.
Grey Bull said the Wind River Emergency Rental Assistance Program was set up to handle the tribal funding with little guidance.
“There was no format, there was no structure for us,” she said. “We had to build it from ground zero.”
‘Help to those who need it’
The tribal program has now become a model for the state, with Wyoming officials looking to Wind River for guidance in running the statewide program.
Rachel Girt, communications coordinator for Wyoming Emergency Rental Assistance Program, said the state program’s steering committee has been in conversations with Grey Bull to seek input and advice. Since an initial meeting, they’ve continued to meet biweekly to share updates.
Both governmental organizations have been able to track funding allocated. The tribe is based in Fremont County and has been helping non-tribal members in need of rental assistance, while also supporting tribal members who live out of state. The tracking ensures that renters don’t receive funds twice, Grey Bull said.
“I think for us that live on reservations, and of course our Wind River community — when it comes to getting help to those who need it, there is a sense of not only urgency, but there's also a sense of honor, that we're providing the fast, quick response that they need,” Grey Bull said.
“I think if you compare that to the state or other ERA programs, their avenue of processing applications (is longer) and to their defense, they have a lot more people to process.”
Grey Bull believes that the tribal leadership is a result of her team’s work and the ways they’ve made the application process accessible: an online application, in-person assistance, and home visits by staff members.
“Putting the Emergency Rental Assistance program aside, I am aware of the overwhelming need here at the Wind River reservation,” said Grey Bull. “This program is a sense of relief for those who suffer the most.”
More help may be available soon for Lock.
The Northern Arapaho tribe is expecting additional funds from the federal government to help homeowners pay their mortgages, which could help her offset some additional costs.
For now, she does beadwork and sewing to help make ends meet.
“I’m really thankful,” she said, “that Lynette encouraged us to apply.”