A new executive director will lead Native American human services nonprofit Chief Seattle Club, the organization announced Tuesday, after the departure of Colleen Echohawk, who stepped down this month amid her Seattle mayoral race.
Interim Executive Director Derrick Belgarde, the club’s recent deputy director and a former member of the club, will assume the role on a permanent basis. On May 1, Echohawk left to focus on her campaign, months earlier than she anticipated when she announced her candidacy.
Echohawk said she decided to step away this spring in anticipation of a more heated mayoral race in the coming months — especially in debates around homelessness.
“There’s no secret I’m running for office because I’m frustrated we haven’t done more for our homeless community,” Echohawk said. “So there will be critiques of what’s happening at City Hall and I don’t want that to get in the way of the work Chief Seattle Club is doing.”
Over seven years, Echohawk leveraged her position at Chief Seattle Club to organize and advocate on behalf of several Native-led groups across the city, an effort that has made major changes to the homelessness system and its data collection in recent years. Under her leadership, Chief Seattle Club also launched first-of-a-kind local housing projects that aims to tackle the disproportionate impact of homelessness on Indigenous communities.
As a result of advocacy from Echohawk and the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness, a collective Echohawk founded, King County changed the way it conducted its annual point-in-time survey of homelessness to include more Native people living homeless. Last year, King County also began adding tribal affiliations to its homelessness database after Native organizations, including Chief Seattle Club, pushed for the change.
Belgarde, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon and Chippewa-Cree, has overseen some of the club’s most high-profile projects, including Eagle Village, the first local housing project for homeless Native adults, and the Pioneer Square ?ál?al building, which will include 80 studio apartments for low-income households and start leasing this fall.
He also comes to the position with personal experience of homelessness, which he has written about in The Seattle Times.
Belgarde said that he sees the organization doing more housing work in the years to come. Later this year, Chief Seattle Club plans to break ground on permanent supportive housing units, which include social and behavioral health services, in Lake City.
“We’ve got to create more housing security for our relatives out there suffering,” Belgarde said. “When we’ve actually got people stabilized, a roof over their head, we can provide more of our healing programs, more cultural healing and stability in our community.”
One of the major challenges for the organization in the short-term will be recovering from the pandemic, Belgarde said. Chief Seattle Club hasn’t seen some of its regulars in more than a year after the club limited its outreach as a safety precaution. As the pandemic restructured the homelessness system overnight, many people living primarily outside lost touch with services.
While at Chief Seattle Club, Belgarde has often spoken out about homelessness issues, and hasn’t shied away from criticism of Seattle and King County’s policies. Last week, he signed onto a letter alongside two other Native-led homeless service organizations protesting new provisions in Seattle outreach contracts that would require Native organizations’ outreach teams to work in encampments prioritized by the city, including those scheduled for removal the same day.
The move would leave behind relatives in other encampments where the outreach teams work, the letter-writers said. Belgarde told The Seattle Times last week that Chief Seattle Club will not invoice the city for outreach while the provisions are in place.
Echohawk said she will continue to work as an adviser to the club on its eviction prevention program and train new employees on the county’s homelessness services system.