The image of modern and economically thriving, tribally owned casinos and “rich Indians” belies the reality that American Indians are extremely overrepresented among people who are experiencing homelessness in Minnesota: They make up 1% of the state’s total adult population but represent 16% of those who are homeless. There are many reasons why so many American Indians are homeless, beginning with colonization and forced removal of indigenous peoples from their homelands, to boarding schools, to the Indian Relocation Act of 1956 that displaced indigenous people into urban areas, removing them from their traditions and families. We also can’t ignore contemporary inequities in access to high quality education, health care, and other things.
How long will it take to eradicate the legacy of racism and genocide perpetrated against indigenous peoples across Turtle Island (North America)? Do Minnesotans have the collective will and unified moral stance to address homelessness among American Indians?
New research provides a clearer picture of this problem and opportunities to address it. In fall 2018, Wilder Research partnered with the Minnesota Tribal Collaborative to Prevent and End Homelessness and its six participating Ojibwe tribes in northern Minnesota (Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Red Lake, and White Earth) to conduct the Reservation Homeless Study. Results from a simultaneous statewide study include American Indians who are homeless in Minnesota not living on a reservation.
Affordable housing is the greatest need for people who are experiencing homelessness in Minnesota. On reservations, the median monthly income of homeless respondents was $300, and 27% had no income. Following guidelines from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), “affordable” rent and utilities for the average respondent would be $90, which is much lower than the 2018 fair market rent of $576 for a one-bedroom apartment in Greater Minnesota.
Many double up to avoid shelters and living outside
A majority (70%) of respondents from reservations were doubled up, meaning staying with someone they know rather than in a shelter or outside. Overcrowding is an issue for three out of four of these individuals, and one out of five are living in substandard conditions (without running water, a flush toilet, heat, etc.) Doubling-up is not a cultural preference: 97% said they would prefer to live on their own (with just their immediate family members) if they could afford it.
In 2018, the Hiawatha homeless encampment (aka “The Wall of Forgotten Natives”) had more than 200 individuals camping there at times, with nearly three-quarters of them American Indian. This encampment created serious public health and social justice concerns, and the media coverage of this site created and strengthened in the public’s mind a picture of American Indians as being homeless due to drug addiction. Of course, indigenous people who have substance abuse problems can benefit from culturally responsive “housing-first” approaches, where people are given the dignity and safety of housing, instead of expecting them to get sober on the streets in order to qualify for safe housing. But it’s important to keep in mind that the majority of American Indians who are experiencing homelessness do not consider substance use to be a barrier to them obtaining housing — only 15% of respondents on reservations and 23% not on reservations said this was a primary barrier to them getting housing.
We need to make systemic changes right here in Minnesota to address this problem in the long term, like creating more affordable housing and living wage jobs, including in reservation communities. Can state and tribal governments and the private sector collaborate to make this a reality?
Focus on preventing homelessness
We need policies and practices that provide for basic necessities, including shelter, food, and health care, regardless of an individual’s ability to pay “market rate.” We need to get resources directly to tribes and community organizations to provide the culturally responsive services for their people, with a focus on preventing homelessness. Can policymakers prioritize paying for upstream, culturally responsive prevention instead of waiting and paying more to address the downstream problems caused by poverty?
Finally, can each of us learn more about what homelessness on American Indian reservations is really like? Doing so may allow us to offer more kindness and support to those who need it most.
For more information about the statewide and reservation homeless studies, visit: www.mnhomeless.org
Tammy Moreland is the chair of the Minnesota Tribal Collaborative to Prevent and End Homelessness. Nicole MartinRogers is a senior research manager at Wilder Research and co-director of the Reservation Homeless Study.
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