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.

  • Seven Eggs, a U.S. Army veteran and Crow tribal member, is 'invisibly homeless,' having lived as a guest in his son's home on the Crow Reservation in Montana for nearly a decade. In order to receive aid from a program that is the centerpiece of the Obama administration's push to end veteran homelessness, Seven Eggs would have to move off the reservation.

    Adam Sings In The Timber
  • Legal conflicts prevent veterans from using housing vouchers on most reservations. Even if the subsidies were available to vets in Crow Reservation towns like Lodge Grass, Montana, above, there is a scarcity of housing that meets HUD's requirements.

    Adam Sings In The Timber
  • Seven Eggs, right, visits with Michael Fitzpatrick, an Air Force veteran who shares a home on the Crow Reservation with his wife and a few of grandsons that come and go.

    Adam Sings In The Timber
 

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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • DESCHUTES LAND TRUST EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Deschutes Land Trust, based in Bend, Oregon, seeks a collaborative and strategic Executive Director to lead us in pursuing our mission: to conserve and care...
  • DEVELOPMENT MANAGER
    Job Title: Development Manager Supervisor: Senior Director of Development Effective Date: May 17, 2021 Job Status: Full-time (40 hours/week), exempt Location: Within the Colorado Plateau...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR AT FRIENDS OF CEDAR MESA
    - The Land, History, and People of the Bears Ears Region - The Bears Ears and Cedar Mesa region is one of the most beautiful,...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Job Title: Executive Director Reports To: Board of Directors Compensation: $75,000 to $80,000, plus generous benefits and paid leave. Funding for relocation expenses available. Classification:...
  • WATER DIRECTOR
    Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis. Application review will begin on April 2, 2021 and will continue until the position has been filled....
  • CLIMATE JUSTICE FELLOW
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks applicants for a climate justice fellowship. The fellowship...
  • VIRGINIA SPENCER DAVIS FELLOWSHIP
    High Country News, an award-winning magazine covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, is offering a fellowship for early-career journalists interested in...
  • COLORADO WILD PUBLIC LANDS VIDEO CONTEST
    Please submit your video of 30 seconds or less, taken on public lands, to [email protected] by May 15th for a chance to win in one...
  • WMAN NETWORK COORDINATOR
    WESTERN MINING ACTION NETWORK (WMAN) CONTRACT OPPORTUNITY CLOSING DATE: Feb. 19, 2021 WMAN is seeking a team member to coordinate the various network activities to...
  • FRIENDS OF THE INYO IS HIRING TRAIL AMBASSADORS FOR THE SUMMER OF 2021
    Friends of the Inyo's Trail Ambassadors (TAs) support the Inyo, Sierra, & Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forests and other partners by providing positive public service, outreach, interpretation,...
  • LAND & CABIN ON CO/ UT LINE
    18 ac w/small solar ready cabin. Off grid, no well. Great RV location. Surrounded by state wildlife area and nat'l parks.
  • MANAGER PERMACULTURE LANDSCAPE CONTRACTOR
    Permaculture / Landscape Company Manager / Site Lead Red Ant Works, Inc. - 20+ year landscape construction and horticultural care company seeks manager and site...
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.
  • COMMUNICATIONS MANAGER
    San Juan Citizens Alliance is looking for a passionate, dynamic, organized, and technology-savvy communications professional to help grow our membership and presence in the Four...
  • ENERGY AND CLIMATE PROGRAM ASSOCIATE
    San Juan Citizens Alliance seeks an Energy and Climate Program Associate to focus on public outreach, education and organizing to advance campaigns to mitigate climate...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    This position provides professional real estate services and is responsible for managing and completing real estate projects utilizing a project management database that is designed...
  • WILDFIRE MITIGATION SPECIALIST
    The Wildfire Mitigation Specialist is responsible for delivering wildfire risk mitigation information, recommendations and programmatic resources to wildland urban interface homeowners, community members and partners....
  • DEVELOPMENT POSITIONS
    Thorne Nature Experience is hiring for a Development Director and Senior Individual Giving Manager. Individuals will work collaboratively with Thorne's Executive Director to develop and...
  • SENIOR PROGRAM MANAGER, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION & ENERGY
    The National Parks Conservation Association, a 100-year-old nonprofit advocacy organization and the nation's leading voice for national parks seeks a Senior Program Manager, Landscape Conservation...
  • BACKCOUNTRY AND FRONTCOUNTRY STEWARDSHIP CREW MEMBERS
    The San Juan Mountains Association (SJMA) is hiring a crew of ambassadors to work in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to educate visitors on...