08/19/2013 - In Indian Country, Serving Those Who Have Served

By Karen R. Diver, Chairwoman, Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

The first Veteran’s Supportive Housing project to be located on Native American tribal homelands had its grand opening last month on the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation. The building features ten units for single Veterans experiencing homelessness. Native Americans have consistently had the highest per capita service rates of any group in the country, which makes this accomplishment particularly noteworthy.

Additionally, many tribal public housing authorities offer limited types of housing services, usually only low-income rental and home-ownership programs. For many years, the Federal government dictated to tribes how their housing programs had to operate. With the passage of the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) in 1996, tribal governments could develop their own housing plans and solutions that were tailored to meet the needs the tribe determined were most pressing. Unfortunately, tribes have been isolated in their service delivery from established housing models that serve broader communities, and program development was stagnated by that lack of knowledge. 

Developing new service delivery models is further hindered by a lack of data collection about homelessness and other social indicators in tribal communities. Every three years, the State of Minnesota sponsors a homeless count, working with counties and social service nonprofits.  The results of this survey are then used by the state to determine how to allocate funding through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency. Tribal communities were never included in the homeless surveying, and therefore were never prioritized for funding. This left the opportunity for tribes to leverage funding under their NAHSDA block grants on the table. Once tribes were included in the homeless counts, the numbers were staggering. The State of Minnesota stepped up with additional support for tribes.  

For Fond du Lac, located in rural northern Minnesota, the increased knowledge helped to open 24 units of supportive housing serving singles and families.  It also helped to build understanding that there are also built in advantages for tribes in developing housing with the supportive housing model.  Most tribal communities have medical and social service delivery systems already in place. There is no need to develop complex partnerships between multiple nonprofits to accomplish both housing and services. Tribes merely need to break down the barriers internally between existing housing and social services. Behavior health services can be billed through Indian Health Service, reducing the need for additional grant funding.

When the Fond du Lac Band heard that there were efforts being made at the national level to funnel much-needed resources towards reducing homelessness among Veterans, we were elated that this key population could be served. Our initial homelessness count told us that homelessness was high, especially with older, single Veterans. We moved quickly to plan a facility geared toward their needs.  

The funds for the facility came together relatively easy, but we soon ran into another issue.  The authorizing legislation did not mention that tribes were eligible to receive HUD Veteran’s Affairs Supportive Housing (VASH) vouchers. Despite the long history of American Indian’s service rates, we were forgotten once again. The 2013 reauthorization of NAHASDA has included funding for a pilot program for tribal communities that develop Veteran’s supportive housing.   Tribes are hopeful that the pilot program will expand, or be folded into the larger program assuring stability for the operating support needed.

As Fond du Lac continues to pioneer housing models in Indian Country, we remain hopeful that with each project we build understanding about the need for resources to in under-served tribal communities.

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