Reflections on a Federal Initiative to Address American Indian and Alaska Native Homelessness

July 9, 2019

Greeting at the American Indian Community Housing
Organization Headquarters in Duluth, MN, which has 29
units of suportive housing and a cultural center.

It was at my very first USICH Council meeting that then-Interior Secretary Sally Jewell looked around the table and challenged her colleagues to do more about the crisis of housing instability and homelessness among American Indians and Alaska Natives. I was brand new to USICH – about seven days into the job, to be exact – and was still learning the ins and outs of USICH’s role in coordinating the federal response to homelessness.

In response to Secretary Jewell’s charge, USICH and seven federal agencies – ED, DOI, DOL, HHS, HUD, USDA, and VA – signed a Memorandum of Understanding and developed a specific action plan , informed largely by consultation with tribal leaders, urban Native organizations, and national experts, that would serve as a roadmap for the work of the Council going forward. A guiding principle woven throughout the plan – and in my mind, the most critical piece—is that any federal strategies and actions in this area must be informed by and responsive to tribes themselves.

Through consultation, many tribes expressed a need for additional guidance and technical assistance (TA) on strengthening partnerships with non-tribal entities, navigating access to federal, state, and local housing resources, strengthening local data collection, and ultimately, increasing the supply of housing. We also heard loud and clear that any federal TA efforts needed to be culturally competent, balanced with tribal sovereignty, and tailored to local needs.

With this feedback in mind, we developed a concept for an interagency TA initiative, and were thrilled to learn that HUD’s Department of Community Planning and Development (CPD) had set aside $500,000 to fund it. HUD, USICH, and three technical assistance providers – the National American Indian Housing Coalition (NAIHC), LeBeau Consulting, LLC, and Collaborative Solutions – selected eight tribes and two urban Native organizations to receive tailored technical assistance:

  • Sisseton Wahpeton Housing Authority – SD
  • Cook Inlet Housing Authority - AK
  • Gila River Indian Community - AZ
  • Nez Perce Tribal Housing Authority - ID
  • Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest - OR
  • Ho-Chunk Housing and Community Development Agency - WI
  • Red Lake Nation - MN
  • Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, Housing Authority - MI
  • Native American Development Center - ND
  • Oneida Nation – WI

I was honored to participate in the first gathering of the group in Denver, Colorado, recently, which focused largely on the nuts and bolts of how Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) projects are developed and financed, including the nuances of Low-Income Housing Tax Credits (LIHTC), and how those credits can be paired with other funding sources to make the development of PSH possible both on and off tribal lands. There were presentations from developers, syndicators, and investors, site visits to PSH projects in the metro Denver area, and time for the 10 teams to strategize about which population they might wish to serve based upon their data. Examples of target populations might include people with severe mental illness and/or substance use disorders, older adults, youth, or Veterans, among others.

One of the most unique and exciting things about this TA initiative is that not only will tribes learn how to improve access to housing and services in their communities, but they will also walk away with a tangible, concrete plan to design and develop a PSH project to meet the needs of their target populations. Over the course of the two and a half days, I saw the excitement in the room start to grow as the realization of what might be possible began to sink in.

At the same time, I think everyone in the room was probably feeling a certain degree of overwhelm by the time we wrapped up on the last day. As we were going around the room sharing final reflections, one person said something that put this work in perspective for me. She shared that the tribe she was part of began implementing the Tribal HUD-VASH program in 2015, it became very apparent to her that her community already had the strengths they needed to do this work. For her community, taking care of their neighbors was more than a best practice; it was a deeply rooted cultural responsibility that didn’t require training.

As a federal partner in the room, I think we would do well to remember her words, and to continue to acknowledge that we don’t have all the answers. Where we can h elp is in facilitating connections to federal resources, reducing barriers that may prevent tribes from accessing our programs and services, and following through on any promises we make. It is incumbent upon us to earn the trust of tribes. There is much more work to be done, and this TA initiative is one small step in the right direction.

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