Native Americans and Alaskan Natives are less than 1 percent of King County’s population but nearly 6 percent of its homeless population. The city is trying to fix that disparity, but there are obstacles — one of them a Civil Rights-era fair housing law.

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Bridgette Davis figures she was probably 10 the first time she started to fear going home because of her mother’s struggles with alcohol addiction. She found solace where she could, on the Yakama Nation reservation that was her grandmother’s home. Occasionally she simply slept overnight alone in a park.

After she became a mother herself, faced her own addiction and spent years off and on the streets, Davis wound up living in Victor Steinbrueck park near Pike Place Market. Among Native Americans and Alaska Natives who are homeless, it is unofficially called Native Park because so many have stayed there. Many lives ended there, too.

“I used to think I was gonna die at the park like my elders,” said Davis, 47.

In a country where Native Americans die at higher rates than most Americans from diabetes, drugs and homicide, and have experienced a long history of often violent displacement, they also make up an outsized portion of the homeless population.

In King County, Native Americans and Alaskan Natives have the highest rates of homelessness compared to any racial or ethnic group. They make up less than 1 percent of the county’s overall population but comprise nearly 6 percent of those who are homeless. Once homeless, they also find housing at lower rates than any racial or ethnic group.

The city of Seattle, wrestling with a growing homelessness crisis, is trying to address the racial disparity for the first time this year.

Last year, when the city rebid its homeless-services contracts, five Native-led organizations were awarded $3.2 million to prevent and end homelessness; four of those groups had never received city funding for those programs. The idea was that Native American organizations could best serve their own communities.

“These guys have an understanding of how to tailor their care for Indian people,” said Michael Reichert, president and CEO of Catholic Community Services and Catholic Housing Services of Western Washington and a member of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.

But with the new opportunities and resources come new requirements.

Arlene Zahne, a Navajo woman, finds peace after losing her partner and choosing recovery from addiction and homelessness. She is one of many women that Mother Nation, a Native-led Seattle organization, has helped. (Ramon Dompor / The Seattle Times)

Seattle, after the contract rebidding, is pledging to house 7,400 homeless people by the end of this year, more than double the total from 2017. To reach that goal, the city is requiring service providers — including the Native-led groups — to hit quarterly performance targets.

Despite the city’s desire to reduce racial disparities, housing can’t actually be prioritized based on race — the federal Fair Housing Act prohibits explicit set-asides. And organizations receiving public dollars for housing can’t turn anyone away, even if they typically cater to specific cultural or racial groups.

Add to these potential limitations the historical discrimination of Native people, and the resulting social ills within that community, plus a regionwide affordable-housing shortage.

These realities are perhaps all the more distressing in a city named for Chief Seattle of the Duwamish and Suquamish peoples.

“There’s something out of balance when the First Nations people of this country are the most likely to be homeless,” said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of Chief Seattle Club, one of the newly funded organizations.

Colleen Echohawk, director of Chief Seattle Club, stands near lists of present members and those who have passed away. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Colleen Echohawk, director of Chief Seattle Club, stands near lists of present members and those who have passed away. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Goals to meet

Across the country, other cities, like Seattle, are focusing on the intersection of homelessness and race. The Center for Social Innovation, a Massachusetts-based think tank, recently launched partnerships with eight communities, including Tacoma and Pierce County, to understand the wide racial and ethnic disparities in homelessness.

But no cities have come up with a cure-all. The efforts are focused on analyzing data to understand who is more likely to be homeless, but there are no proven strategies to reduce the disparities.

Locally, King County has for several years funded culturally specific organizations to provide homeless services. Seattle is also trying to reduce the high rates of homelessness among African Americans, but has emphasized addressing Native homelessness.

The city, however, hasn’t set an overall target for housing homeless Native Americans — the focus on disparities is just a broad objective.

But it is holding individual organizations to the specific performance goals. They must get 80 percent of their clients, participating in certain programs, into permanent housing; if they fail, they could lose 12 percent of their funding.

Despite that pressure, the city had not signed more than half of its contracts by Feb. 1. That leaves some of the smaller agencies in limbo.

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Mother Nation, one of the Native organizations getting first-time funding, not long ago operated out of the founder’s car. Without the contract signed, they have not been able to hire new staff for the city-funded positions.

“We’re not naive, and we know it’s going to be a lot of hard work,” said Echohawk, with Chief Seattle Club, which, along with Mother Nation, is subcontracting with the Seattle Indian Health Board on the homeless services. “In the big picture of homelessness in the city, this is the right step, it is the right way.”

Leaders in the Native community say they need time to develop their programs, and tailor them to a community suffering from high levels of substance abuse and long-term homelessness. At least 75 percent of Chief Seattle Club’s members, for example, have mental-health and substance-abuse issues.

That’s why the cultural connections are so important, said Mother Nation’s Executive Director Norine Hill. Their clients participate in sweat-lodge ceremonies. They do traditional beading and participate in talking circles, telling their stories as part of their therapy.

Chief Seattle Club refers to people they serve as “members” or “relatives,” not clients.

“A lot of organizations, they just throw homeless people into housing,” Hill said. “And if you don’t heal them, how do you expect them to stay there?”

Historical traumas

Two years ago, Davis never expected to have a home of her own.

In 2015, her life took another dramatic turn. She spent several months in jail and pleaded guilty to an assault charge for an incident that occurred at Native Park. As she awaited a court date in jail, her children, several of them minors, fended for themselves on the streets or sometimes lived with acquaintances.

After pleading guilty, Davis went into addiction treatment; she said she has stayed sober since. Mother Nation and a team of people from various agencies eventually helped her secure a Section 8 housing voucher and then an apartment in southwest King County. She now shares the two-bedroom unit with some of her teenage children.

Victor Steinbrueck Park, just north of Pike Place Market, is unofficially known as Native Park among local Native Americans. Bridgette Davis used to live in the park and had thought she might die there. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Victor Steinbrueck Park, just north of Pike Place Market, is unofficially known as Native Park among local Native Americans. Bridgette Davis used to live in the park and had thought she might die there. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

“I can’t believe I made it here,” said Davis, who is now a member of All Home’s Consumer Advisory Council, which includes other formerly homeless people like herself. She was also asked recently to be part of One Table, the county’s new homelessness task force.

Mother Nation deals with Davis’ landlord. Last year, she got her first email address.

Her two oldest daughters remain homeless, living somewhere in downtown Seattle. She continues to struggle with how to keep herself from getting ensnared in the drama of the streets.

Elements of Davis’ story are shared by many of the women Mother Nation has helped, bound both by their culture and a history of trauma. Stories of domestic violence and sexual assault and abuse are common.

The effects of government policies, some only a few decades old, reverberate throughout their lives.

Davis can remember her grandmother’s crooked fingers, how she attributed them to teachers in a boarding school striking her across the hand with a ruler as punishment for speaking her Native language. The U.S. government sent Native children to off-reservation schools starting in the late 19th century, a way to separate them from their culture.

Her mother moved to Seattle in the late 1960s, the tail end of a massive migration of Native Americans out of reservations and into cities, propelled by federal urban relocation laws.

“People say that was a long time ago,” agreed Hill of Mother Nation, who also was homeless as a teenager and battled addiction. “Well, no it wasn’t. It was my grandmother, it was my grandfather.”

Ramona Ahto, of the Yakama Tribe, speaks during a meeting of Mother Nation, as Norine Hill, the organization’s executive director, listens.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
Ramona Ahto, of the Yakama Tribe, speaks during a meeting of Mother Nation, as Norine Hill, the organization’s executive director, listens. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

A complicated system

It is this very recent history that leads many Native Americans to maintain a “blatant distrust of government systems,” said Esther Lucero, CEO of the Seattle Indian Health Board.

That’s why, when the health board and its partners — Chief Seattle Club and Mother Nation — applied for city funding, they were explicit about wanting to serve people like Davis. All of Chief Seattle Club’s members are Native, and most of the organizations’ staff and board members are Native.

“Trust is better to establish when you have faces that look like yours,” Lucero said.

But King County’s publicly funded housing network requires organizations to serve anyone, regardless of race or ethnicity. The county’s Coordinated Entry for All System, an inventory of that housing, ranks people based on a vulnerability score, which technically can’t be influenced by race.

That has had unforeseen consequences.

A transitional housing program called Labateyah was created for Native American youth, and historically it has served them. But recently, after Coordinated Entry went into effect, the home had only one Native American youth staying there, prompting concerns from the housing provider.

King County worked with Labateyah, tweaking the vulnerability assessment. Although fair-housing laws prohibit race-based preferences, the county got around those limitations by asking people if they’d prefer housing providers that specialize in serving clients with a tribal designation.

Hedda McLendon, the county’s housing services and stability manager, said her staff got “legal expertise to really nuance these questions.” On the advice of organizations like Chief Seattle Club, the county convened weekly meetings to prioritize housing for the most vulnerable homeless people.

But achieving Seattle’s goal of racial parity in terms of who gets housed faces another challenge: There are almost no housing units run by organizations that specialize in working with Native Americans. Currently, Labateyah is the only one in the system.

That’s why Reichert, with Catholic Community Services, is encouraging Native organizations like Chief Seattle Club and Seattle Indian Health Board to raise money and build their own housing, something both agencies plan to do. That’s an expensive proposition in Seattle: The club alone needs to raise $30 million for its housing.

That housing could then be aggressively marketed to a particular population, even if it can’t be held exclusively for them.

You have to be deliberate about who you want to serve, and tailor housing to that community, if you really want to achieve racial equity, he said.

“If you don’t discriminate,” Reichert said, “you’re not serious.”

A prayer circle begins a meeting of Mother Nation, a Seattle organization that works with homeless Native American women. The organization is one of several Native-led agencies that received city funding for homeless services for the first time last year.  (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
A prayer circle begins a meeting of Mother Nation, a Seattle organization that works with homeless Native American women. The organization is one of several Native-led agencies that received city funding for homeless services for the first time last year. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Starting to heal

The challenge for organizations like Mother Nation is to not just get Native men and women like Davis into a home, but to keep them there, as Seattle maintains its aggressive push to house more homeless people.

For Davis, it’s her ongoing relationship with Mother Nation that helps keep her going.

One evening in late January, Davis went to the Spirit Journey House, a transitional home for Native women where she once lived and where Mother Nation provides wraparound cultural services. Now she was helping to teach a class there on essential oils, one of her new passions.

She talked about the benefits of lavender to relax and cedar wood for people who struggle to form bonds, something she understood well from her time on the streets.

On this night, however, that life felt far away. This room was full of Native women, two current Spirit Journey House residents but several graduates, too. They were laughing and eating. They were happy.

This, Davis said, was her sisterhood. By the end of the night, her mood had been lifted.

But she doesn’t want to stop with herself. Now Davis wants to start a talking circle for her teenage children, so they can begin to unravel their own stories and face their pain. She wants them to have a chance.

“To start their healing,” she said.

“The Tree of Life” sculpture was given to the citizens of Seattle by the Homeless Remembrance Project. It stands in Victor Steinbrueck Park, just north of Pike Place Market, unofficially known as Native Park. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)
“The Tree of Life” sculpture was given to the citizens of Seattle by the Homeless Remembrance Project. It stands in Victor Steinbrueck Park, just north of Pike Place Market, unofficially known as Native Park. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times)

Do you have an experience related to homelessness and Seattle’s native population you’d like to share? Email homeless@seattletimes.com and if it’s impactful, we might feature it in a post.