Notes from the Field: A look into tribal homelessness

written by Kim Walker
March 31, 2011

Today’s post comes to us from Alliance Center for Capacity Building Associate Kim Walker.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to work with a group of seven different Chippewa bands located in northern Minnesota on developingten year plans to end homelessness.

It was remarkable to learn about the struggles that many tribal nations face in defining, preventing, and ending homelessness. Tribal leaders share many of the challenges that rural areas face, like serving people spread over a large land area, finding adequate funding, and providing shelter amid a startling lack of housing infrastructure.

But beyond that, tribal homelessness is still unique.

  • Because tribes are officially considered sovereign nations, funding can become complicated or come with limitations that may prove difficult to overcome (i.e., some funding may be unavailable to tribes unless they are able to become an incorporated non-profit).
  • Additionally, homelessness, or near homelessness, on a reservation looks different than what people might expect. The Wilder Survey, one of the most comprehensive surveys of tribal homelessness, found that many Native Americans living on reservations are doubled up for long periods of time, often moving from one doubled up situation to another as long as that’s sustainable. Street homelessness is less common, meaning homelessness is less visible. Even the term “homeless” can cause confusion on a reservation, as the land itself is often considered a “home” for all tribal members.
  • Tribes may also struggle in gaining attention for this issue from external sources. Although they share common concerns, it can be difficult to build a coalition when reservations have such distinct cultures and are often times far away from each other.

For a community that has long been overlooked my mainstream American culture, it’s disheartening to hear that even with this issue – an issue confronting all Americans – we continue to neglect this important part of our national community.

So what can we do? I think the most important thing is to educate ourselves about these issues – helping end homelessness for one population ultimately means improving our ability to end homelessness for all. A good start is reading the 2006 Wilder Survey on the topic.