11/14/2012 - American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian Homelessness spotlighted at Expert Panel

Stop for a minute and imagine what it would be like to be homeless while living on a remote Alaskan village, with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees below zero.  Or imagine perhaps living on the beautiful Hawaiian Islands, but having to move your tent every few weeks because you have nowhere else to live.  And finally, imagine living on the reservation, in your homeland, without a place to call home.

Homelessness is an extreme manifestation of poverty.  If poverty is an indicator of homelessness or the risk of becoming homeless, American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian (AI/AN/NH) communities are at extreme risk of homelessness. The U.S. Census Bureau found in 2010 that 28.4 percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives live in poverty. This same census data show that 18.8 percent of single-race Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islanders live in poverty. By comparison, the U.S. population as a whole has a 15.3 percent poverty rate.

Despite the magnitude of the problem, homelessness within American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities often remains an unrecognized social and health crisis. Indigenous people are disproportionately represented among Americans experiencing homelessness. Unfortunately, there is a significant gap in our knowledge on the needs and challenges of indigenous populations who struggle with homelessness in urban, rural, and reservation settings. Though limited, the research tells us that American Indian, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian communities are all at high risk for many of the conditions that lead to or make it challenging to climb out of homelessness. These conditions include disproportionate poverty, trauma, domestic and other violence, behavioral health disorders, and other public health disparities. 

In an effort to better understand the issues and dynamics of homelessness in indigenous communities, an all-day Expert Panel was convened on September 27, 2012, in the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offices in Rockville, Maryland.  This Expert Panel was noteworthy in a number of regards. For example:

  • It was developed with input from a collaborative Policy Steering Committee whose members represented more than 15 federal agencies, including: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Housing and Urban Development,Office of the Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, Health Resources and Services Administration, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Corporation for National and Community Service, Administration for Children and Families, Veterans Affairs, Department of Justice, Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Education, and the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness.  The involvement of federal partners underscored the importance of understanding and addressing this issue across many federal agencies. It also illustrated the coordination and collaboration that is crucial to addressing this challenge.  
  • The panel was planned with close attention to the need to ensure the event was both sensitive to participants’ culture and relevant from a cultural perspective. This panel was not “business as usual”.  From the beginning, it was clear that the planning for this gathering needed to recognize that the typical western approach would not yield the richness and depth of communication that comes from open and candid discourse with the panelists.  For example, we selected two Steering Committee members to serve as “concierges” in contacting and inviting the panelists.  I personally served as one of these concierges, and felt that the connections with panelists and conversations that took place before the panel were invaluable to help connect with the panelists before the day of the event.
  • Prior to the panel, planners carefully researched and shared with each other what is known about AI/AN/NH homelessness.
  • The event was attended by nationally-recognized experts/authorities on homelessness in AI/AN/NH communities who provided invaluable information, experience, and insight to the federal audience of approximately 50 participants.

I write this blog from the perspective of co-facilitator of this event and as a Clinical Psychologist. I was pleased and honored to serve as co-facilitator with Jennifer Ho, who serves as the Deputy Director of USICH. We realized that our approach would have to be one that invited and encouraged our panelists to take center stage in their own ways and impart their knowledge in ways that were unrushed and thoughtful. The panelists did not simply present the data and information; they verbally painted pictures of the faces and conditions of homelessness in their communities. We saw the other side of “paradise” on the Hawaiian Islands, where homeless families move from one Island location to another as they are forced to move their tents and worldly belongings from place-to-place; the unimaginable plight of homeless individuals who must endure the frigid temperatures in remote villages in Alaska; and the tragedy and continued trauma of losing the sacred place known as “home” in American Indian communities.

In addition to describing the face of homelessness, the panelists also presented a snapshot of some of the practices and successes in working with homeless individuals in their communities.The panel members spoke of the necessity of intensive case management, mobile outreach, traditional healing practices and ceremonies, employment, education, skills building, medical and behavioral health services, and criminal justice services.  The panel discussed the delivery of these services from a context of the historical trauma, risk factors, and strengths in their communities.  Having worked with Native public and behavioral health communities across this country as a trainer, supervisor, mentor and student for over 17 years, I sat in this meeting with an immense sense of appreciation, honor, and respect for the panelists, their words and their spirits. Often we do not remember and consider the complexities and struggles of indigenous people. This meeting was a wake-up call.  

This panel was the fourth in a series of dialogues that USICH and their federal partners hope to continue in the coming months. Just as you read in one of the previous blogs this year on the Expert Panel on Rural and Frontier Homelessness, the challenges and successes that emerged from this conversation are ones that must be highlighted in a larger forum to achieve the goals of Opening Doors for all Americans. Please stay tuned for more information about the results and discussion of this panel from SAMHSA in a paper/report in the coming months.

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