People of color face disproportionate levels of homelessness. In places like Seattle, WA, which declared a state of emergency to respond to the scope of homelessness in the city and county in 2015, the disparities are quite stark. In Seattle/King County, American Indians/Alaska Natives (AI/AN) are seven times more likely to experience homelessness than their white counterparts. Our region’s most recent data indicates that AI/ANs are not only the most disproportionately affected by homelessness, but also the least likely to be referred to housing and least likely to be accepted into housing when referred. Government and philanthropy acknowledge the stark disproportionality facing AI/ANs, yet agencies struggle to provide culturally relevant services and policies that have been adapted to serve our community.
Photo Courtesy of Chief Seattle Club
Chief Seattle Club’s (CSC) ultimate goal is to reduce AI/AN homelessness in King County by 50% by 2022, and we have historically approached this through social services. In order to make a broader impact, we formed the Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness in 2015, which includes non-profit and Native organizations, government agencies, tribal leaders, and philanthropic partners. The Coalition has the authority to address a seemingly intractable issue from the bottom up and from the top down to drive long-term, systemic change. Last year, our region’s Continuum of Care, All Home, prioritized ending Native American homelessness and secured $2.4 million from the City of Seattle to launch a culturally competent, human service collaborative approach to end Native American homelessness earlier this year.
Prior to 1492, Native communities had a 100% success rate in housing and demonstrated success in caring for our people. Since that time, we have experienced genocide and trauma from the government related to housing, including burning down our longhouses, moving people from our historical homelands into reservations, and removing children by force from their homes into boarding schools.
Given our history, Seattle’s AI/AN non-profit community resisted participating in the local Homelessness Management Information System (HMIS), a shared database with confidential information at the client level that can be accessed by government agencies. But after substantive conversations among the Coalition, we realized it is vital for AI/AN nonprofits to participate in HMIS.
Here’s why: There is a vast undercount of the number of AI/ANs experiencing homelessness and therefore an undercount of the resources needed and allocated. At the Coalition, though we’ve had success in program implementation before, our lack of participation in data collection left us appearing to be disconnected. For example, we were told that CSC was not eligible for a particular grant due to our lack of experience in rapid re-housing. In fact, CSC had placed 55 AI/AN families experiencing homelessness into housing over the last year, but our success wasn’t being documented in HMIS. If we want to be counted, we must participate.
Last year, CSC began participating in King County's weekly meeting discussing, by name, the highest-need individuals in the region currently prioritized for housing. King County’s current prioritization policy relies primarily on the VI-SPDAT (Vulnerability Index-Service Prioritization and Decision Assistance Tool). We’ve found that due to historically negative interactions with government and other cultural issues, most AI/ANs don't answer VI-SPDAT questions honestly and tend to score lower.
For example, CSC worked with a AI/AN woman experiencing homelessness who was a heroin user and sex worker for more than 20 years but scored unexpectedly “low” on the assessment. She had unsuccessfully sought assistance from multiple agencies for years before she came to CSC. Our culturally competent case manager worked with her for two months, successfully enrolled her into treatment, and moved her into permanent housing.
The Coalition has raised concerns about the disparate impacts of these types of policies and are working closely with All Home and government partners to make system improvements to change these dynamics. A CSC staff member now co-chairs the Continuum’s oversight committee for coordinated entry and is at the helm of driving critical changes that will ensure policies that perpetuate disparities are eliminated and replaced by equitable policies.
A major unanticipated benefit of the Coalition has been bringing people around the table that don’t usually work together. Due to forging these new relationships, CSC now has a seat at the table in city, county, and state homelessness policy discussions to elevate the voices of Native people experiencing homelessness.
We have a lot of work ahead of us to reach the Coalition’s goal to help end urban indigenous homelessness. I know that by developing and deepening our partnerships we can meet our goal.
Colleen Echohawk is also the Founder of the Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness and an All Home Continuum of Care Board Member