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Tribes struggle to house their 'invisibly homeless' veterans

Red tape makes it difficult for veterans in Indian Country to access a key federal assistance program.

 

For nearly a decade, Seven Eggs has stayed with his son in the town of Crow Agency, on southeast Montana's Crow Reservation. Their faded green house, built roughly 40 years ago by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, is deteriorating. The siding is peeling, the roof leaks; one bathroom is a lightless construction zone with unfinished wiring and a gap in the shower where framing shows through. Black mold grows on the walls, and though Seven Eggs scrubs it away with bleach, it returns, with a heavy scent that lingers in the back of the throat.

Seven Eggs (his Crow name, which he prefers to Ira Bad Bear, his American one) spent two years as a U.S. Army combat engineer in Vietnam. "It was a great accomplishment for me," he says. But since returning in 1971, he has suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder and rarely owned a home.

In his first years back on the reservation – wrestling with anxiety, alcoholism and nightmares that still steal his sleep – he stayed with his mother or camped on the nearby prairie. "I felt safer out there," he says. "I was kind of expecting trouble from every corner." He later married and lived with his wife's family until the couple bought their own home. But once they separated, Seven Eggs moved into a tepee behind the house where he now lives. When the snow began to fall that first winter, his son invited him to stay inside as a guest. But the arrangement is tenuous: His son's relatives own the house, making it hard for Seven Eggs to apply for tribal grants to repair it, and leading him to wonder when he will have to move again.

One Crow official calls Seven Eggs' situation "invisible homelessness." In urban areas, folks often end up in shelters or on the streets, where they are easily recognized. But in Indian Country, where housing shortages are common and shelters in short supply, families cope by sharing spare rooms, couches and floor space. This is one reason why many Native vets like Seven Eggs have slipped through the cracks of HUD-VASH, an otherwise effective federal program that aims to end veteran homelessness.

Revived by President George W. Bush in 2008, HUD-VASH is now the centerpiece of an Obama administration push to end veteran homelessness by 2015. But red tape prevents many veterans in Indian Country from participating, even though in 2010, Native American vets were significantly more likely to be homeless than their white, non-Hispanic counterparts. While Native Americans enlist at a rate generally twice that of other races, they return home to above-average disability rates and the lowest incomes.

All of this means HUD-VASH is least available to those who most need it, argues Zoe LeBeau, a Minnesota-based housing consultant who has long fought to bring the program to reservations. "VASH vouchers are the number-one tool we have to stabilize housing for veterans," she says. "And tribes don't have access to them."

Administered by HUD and the Department of Veterans Affairs, HUD-VASH provides Section 8 housing vouchers to chronically homeless veterans, ensuring they spend no more than 30 percent of their income on rent. Since many recipients suffer from addiction and other ailments, the rental funds are paired with VA clinical and social services. Backed by $425 million in housing funds to date, this model has helped reduce veteran homelessness by over 24 percent since 2009, while overall homelessness declined just 5 percent. But of the roughly 58,000 vouchers awarded so far, only 600 have gone to Native Americans.

The main barrier is the 1996 Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA), which controls most federal housing funds distributed to tribes, explains Deana O'Hara, a senior adviser in HUD's Office of Native American Programs. A conflict between that law and the Housing Act of 1937, under which HUD-VASH is administered, prevents veterans from using vouchers for federally subsidized houses on reservations. Most reservation housing is federally subsidized.

Even if a veteran finds a home without this conflict, many reservation houses are falling apart and don't meet HUD's standards. At the same time, tribal housing departments can't administer VASH vouchers, forcing veterans on reservations to navigate extra layers of bureaucracy with outside housing authorities. And all of this assumes HUD recognizes a Native American veteran as homeless in the first place. But the agency distributes vouchers based on a definition of homelessness that doesn't include those staying with relatives. This disqualifies many in Indian Country, where, according to the nonprofit Housing Assistance Council, up to 9 percent of homes are overcrowded – three times the national average.

HUD and VA staffers have worked for over a year to bring HUD-VASH to reservations, but some now think congressional action is necessary. "There are so many hurdles," O'Hara says. "There are so many hoops."

For now, many Native American veterans who receive VASH vouchers face a choice: Leave their communities or give up a chance to have a home of their own. Joe Morrisette, who runs a veterans shelter on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation, has seen voucher recipients search for housing outside the reservation in Rapid City and Hot Springs, but usually only young single men. "Our families are real tight-knit," he says. "A lot of the older veterans who qualify don't want to leave. We get close to getting them in, then they change their minds."

Seven Eggs would face this choice if he applied. He has considered leaving the Crow Reservation to find housing in nearby Hardin or Billings. But even if money weren't an issue, he's reluctant to leave his grandchildren, whom he helps raise. He also hosts dances and sweats, which soothe his nerves and help him sleep.

Teresa Pittman, a regional HUD-VASH coordinator for the VA, says prying veterans out of their communities deprives them of much-needed support networks. "HUD-VASH vouchers are about letting people live where they want to live. We don't want to just end homelessness in cities, but continue to see it in other pockets of the country."

The Crow Tribe's administrative offices occupy a former Indian Health Services hospital on the banks of the Little Bighorn River in Crow Agency, on the edge of the famous battlefield where Crow scouts perished beside George Armstrong Custer in 1876. The tribe's Veterans Affairs staff works in a snug old triage room, just wide enough for four desks. In the corner hangs a T-shirt that reads, "We Were There Too," a memento from Crow veteran Mitchelene Big Man, who led a color guard of Native American women vets in Barack Obama's second inaugural parade. The Crow have a long history of U.S. military service: According to tribal records, they have fought in every major conflict since the Battle of the Little Bighorn, from the Spanish American War to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

In the last two years, the tribe has counted some 420 veterans among its 11,000 members. "I'll show you what we have them fill out," says Mary Louise LaForge, an outreach worker, as she flips through a stack of papers. "Almost every single one of them (writes), 'need home.' Everybody needs a home."

Seven Eggs works here part-time, combing the reservation in his pickup, urging veterans to register with the tribe – a first step toward enrolling for VA services. He doesn't do it for the paycheck, which he spends mostly on gas. "You have kids coming back from Iraq and coming back from Afghanistan," he says. "I don't want them to go through what I did."

Congress is considering several measures to address the problem, but their fate remains uncertain. Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has sponsored a NAHASDA reauthorization bill designed to bring VASH vouchers to tribal land, and a corresponding fix has been introduced in the House by Reps. Derek Kilmer, D-Wash., and Tom Cole, R-Okla. Neither bill has emerged from committee. HUD's 2014 budget, sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., would create a $3 million HUD-VASH pilot program on reservations, but it has been tangled in D.C.'s fiscal gridlock.

Meanwhile, the Crow are taking matters into their own hands, planning a 15-unit project called the Apsaalooke Warriors Apartments, with medical and tribal Veterans Affairs staff on site. To cover construction, the tribe plans to sell federal tax credits and has applied for affordable housing grants. But because the project would house low-income veterans, rental revenue won't cover annual operating costs, estimated at up to $150,000. HUD-VASH could help. "If we have the opportunity to apply for VASH grants, we will," says housing director Karl Little Owl.

If they can't, the tribe will use its NAHASDA funds instead. But that money is already scarce. More than 500 families are waiting for new tribal housing, and Little Owl says his department rarely builds new homes because it spends so much maintaining existing ones, which are generally dilapidated. Still, Crow Vice Secretary Shawn Back Bone, who has spearheaded the apartments, argues that public support and an overwhelming demand for veteran housing justify the project's expense: "We'll fill that probably within the first week."

Seven Eggs says he'll be among the first in line. "If one of those homes comes available, if I'm eligible, I'd get right in there. Just so I'd have something to come home to."