What You Need to Know about Homelessness among Native Americans

In the Southwestern United States, Native Americans comprise a large percentage of the people experiencing homelessness. Many cities with large indigenous communities are experiencing growing rates of homelessness, and Native Americans may be overrepresented in these numbers. The issue came into the spotlight in recent months after two teenagers in Albuquerque, New Mexico, were arrested for killing an indigenous man experiencing homelessness — seemingly for no reason other than cruel sport. The event caused the city to critically re-examine its task force on Native American homelessness.

Unfortunately, hate crimes against Native Americans facing homelessness are not rare, and the issue is compounded by the criminalization of homelessness. In a recent NPR report, some Native Americans experiencing homelessness said police were rough with them and even destroyed their identifying paperwork, which leads to additional problems. In these communities, a great deal of mistrust exists between Native American populations experiencing homelessness and the police. Some people have resorted to forming ad hoc “families” to keep track of each other through nightly head counts.

Factors behind Native Homelessness in Albuquerque

A 2014 survey conducted in Albuquerque found more than three out of four Native Americans experiencing homelessness had dealt with some sort of attack while living on the street. This violence triggered the city to appoint a tribal liaison in 2015, but there is still confusion over where indigenous people should turn for help when they need it. Should they rely on the city to deal with the issues that happen in the city, or does the tribe have ultimate responsibility? This question is difficult to answer, especially since hundreds of different indigenous communities exist in Albuquerque alone and there is no official count of which individuals belong to which pueblo, nation or tribe.

Native Americans who grew up on reservations often face additional issues in the city because they are typically unfamiliar with local government systems. Something as simple as getting a state-issued identification card can prove difficult, but without such documentation, getting a job is almost impossible. These systems largely do not have any form of assistance for minorities, and all paperwork comes only in English, not in indigenous languages. Albuquerque’s tribal liaison has worked to train city employees and service providers to understand indigenous cultures so they can provide better assistance, but targeted programs are necessary to mitigate the deep disparities driving homelessness.

In Albuquerque, Native Americans make up about 5 percent of the general population, but between 10 and 15 percent of the population experiencing homelessness. Much of this homelessness is driven by poverty. For example, Native American women who work full-time in the city live far below the federal poverty line and more so than women in other minority groups. Michelle Melendez, director of Albuquerque’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, believes addressing racial inequities in terms of employment is critical to reducing homelessness. More opportunities for employment at reasonable pay would help the situation as well, but the Albuquerque Indian Center says not many doors have opened so far.

Native American Homelessness Elsewhere in the United States

Outside of New Mexico and the Southwest, homelessness among Native Americans is just as staggering. For example, about 11,000 people belong to the Northern Arapaho tribe in Wyoming, and all of these individuals share just 230 reservation homes. Because so many people have no permanent home, 55 percent of this Native population qualifies as homeless. Toward the end of the Obama administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) conducted a survey of indigenous communities and declared an urgent need for 68,000 new housing units to reduce overcrowding and replace deteriorating stock. This number is close to that needed to reduce homelessness in New York City, but the Native American population and their needs tend to be less visible.

Because of the unique legal status of Native American lands, different solutions for homelessness need to be tried. Treaties and federal policies have created reservations as lands held in trust by the federal government for indigenous communities, which protects the land from speculators. At the same time, it means mortgages and other market-based real estate financing tools largely do not work on reservations, especially because of the poverty existing there. Traditional lenders consider the market too risky. Most tribes rely on the Indian Housing Block Grant funding that was established by the federal government in 1996. This grant program has consistently offered about $650 million annually. However, inflation has functionally reduced this amount by a third since that time.

HUD estimates between 42,000 and 85,000 individuals would be homeless if more Native American tribes had chosen to turn people out, rather than risk overcrowding the limited housing supply on reservations. Some people choose other options, such as housing in apartments and trailer parks in reservation border towns. Unfortunately, Native Americans face housing discrimination in these areas, which can make this option impossible.