The multi-agency effort just announced by the federal government to alleviate Native American veteran homelessness may just be the tip of the iceberg.
Last fall, eight federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on an effort to end all Native American homelessness, not just Native veteran homelessness. The MOU specifically recognizes tribal sovereignty.
In November, the U.S. Interagency Council on Homelessness signed an MOU with seven more federal agencies, the Departments of Interior, Labor, Veterans Affairs, Health and Human Services, Education, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development, “to work together on several key actions that will begin to address homelessness both on and off tribal lands,” according to Lindsay Knotts, policy advisor for USICH.
USICH is in charge of an even larger strategic program, “Opening Doors,” that seeks to end all homelessness anywhere in the country. Started in 2010, the program has been amended in both 2012 and 2015.
The November MOU, worked out after a report to USICH by the Interagency Working Group on Homelessness among American Indians and Alaska Natives has been informed by input from tribal leaders and urban Indian experts, according to Knotts in a posting on the USICH website.
Two of the agencies, HUD and VA, have just announced a joint effort (HUD-VASH) to alleviate homelessness among Native vets. The $5.9 million effort envisions HUD providing vouchers for rental housing and the VA providing supportive services for the vets. This represents an extension to rural and reservation areas of a program that had formerly only been available through Public Housing Authorities, which are mainly urban.
HUD spokeswoman Heather Fluit noted that the amount allocated to the HUD-VASH effort was increased to $5.9 million from the original $4 million, because of the high volume of tribal requests for funds (26 tribes were awarded the money). However, she noted that Congress has yet to appropriate the funds.
The MOU in the larger effort to end all Native homelessness noted Native need was “both unique and uniquely underserved,” according to Knotts. She said the USICH focus on Natives is a result of treaties and trust obligations the federal government has to tribes.
The Council heard testimony that “while only 1.2 percent of the national population self-identifies as AI/AN, 2.3 percent of all people experiencing sheltered homelessness, 2 percent of all sheltered individuals, and 2.9 percent of all sheltered families self-identify as AI/AN. These data are primarily limited to Native Americans experiencing homelessness off tribal lands.
Also, “at least 8.8 percent of households in Native American communities are overcrowded compared with 3 percent nationwide. By some estimates, as many as one in five people (19 percent) living on tribal lands are living in overcrowded housing situations.”
But Knotts said these numbers do not fully reflect the housing crisis in tribal communities.
The group’s plan centers around four strategies:
— Improving access to housing and services through Administrative action, and providing guidance and technical assistance; and to increase the availability of housing options for Native Americans experiencing or at risk of experiencing homelessness both on and off tribal lands.
— Improving data collection on homelessness among Native Americans both on and off tribal lands.
— Ensuring that Federal strategies and actions to set a path to end Native American homelessness are informed by consultation and engagement with tribal leaders, urban native communities, and experts in the field.
— Elevating awareness of the crisis of homelessness and housing instability among Native Americans, both on and off tribal lands.