The first night Patricia St. Marks stayed at Eagle Village, she stayed up for hours talking with another resident who had just moved in. She was too excited to sleep.
“We visited and we cried for happy news,” St. Marks, 70, said.
In November, St. Marks, who is of Chippewa Cree descent, became the first resident of Eagle Village, a bridge housing project for formerly homeless Native Americans in Sodo, run by the Chief Seattle Club. The site, 24 units divided among six modular trailers formerly used by workers in the Texas oilfields, opened in late October.
As an on-site advocate for other residents, St. Marks – or “Kookum,” Cree for grandmother – is also one of the project’s first employees. Sixteen more residents followed her, and as of mid-November, eight more were due to move in. All are Alaska Native or American Indian.
In this respect, Eagle Village is breaking new ground: The $3.3 million development is the first local housing project that aims to directly tackle the disparate impact of homelessness on Native adults.
And now other Native-led organizations are watching Seattle, said Janeen Comenote, executive director of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, a Seattle-based advocacy and research group, of which Chief Seattle Club is a member. Few housing projects are aimed at Native Americans living in cities.
“I think that they’re trailblazing in that they found a unique way to house the homeless,” Comenote said of the Eagle Village project. “The actual structures that they’re using are pretty amazing, and that’s never been done anywhere, not in Indian Country anyway.”
St. Marks said she became a “runner” 10 years ago after an assault.
Her post-traumatic stress disorder made it difficult to stay in one place. Whenever she heard a loud sound or sensed a threat, she would take off, she said.
Shelters didn’t feel safe, either. As a Native woman, “you just stick out like a sore thumb.” So while St. Marks juggled retail jobs, she lived in her car, stayed on people’s floors, or ended up under a tree near a big blackberry bush behind Chief Seattle Club.
The idea to house people like St. Marks through Native-specific programming arose shortly after the city and county declared a state of emergency over homelessness in 2015, said Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Colleen Echohawk.
“[We were] realizing that if we didn’t get really involved in policy we were going to get left out of the conversation,” Echohawk said.
King County has historically struggled to understand the full picture of homelessness for Alaska Native and American Indian communities. In 2018, the county’s annual one-night count of homelessness showed that Alaska Natives and American Indians made up just 3% of homeless people in shelters or on the street.
Echohawk and other Native-led organizations challenged the accuracy of the 2018 count, prompting a change in methodology. This past January, the new point-in-time numbers showed that Natives made up an estimated 10% of the local homeless population, though they represent less than 1% of King County.
Similar disparities are reflected in other cities with sizable Native populations, Comenote, of the National Urban Indian Family Coalition, said.
“There’s a certain level of bang-your-head-against-the-wall irony there, because this was our land and now we’re homeless on it,” Comenote said. “We’re kind of homeless twice. It happened when the colonizers came, and now in modern times we’re homeless again.”
A 2018 King County audit of the county’s homeless response system also noted the lack of housing specific to urban Natives, who, the report said, had the longest wait-times for housing through the county’s Coordinated Entry for All system.
In keeping with fair-housing laws, Eagle Village is not exclusive to Native American adults. Instead, Eagle Village’s programming targets that community and all residents still must go through the county’s Coordinated Entry for All system to find a placement.
People seeking housing through the county answer a question in their assessments about whether they’d prefer programming specialized for a community. If a spot is open at Eagle Village, housing coordinators choose from the pool of people who answer that they’d like Native American-specific programming, explained Hedda McLendon, homeless services and stability manager at the county.
If not enough people select Native American-specific programming, officials then choose from the wider pool of single adult applicants.
Native American service providers also keep a list of names of people who have connected with them, and can advocate for people whose needs match what Eagle Village provides.
But another housing challenge within the urban Native community stems from the fact that many don’t reach out to or follow up with government homelessness services, said Derrick Belgarde, deputy director at Chief Seattle Club.
“There’s a lot of barriers, like access to a stable phone,” Belgarde said. “The other thing, too, is the lack of trust [in government systems] with our historical trauma.”
Eagle Village’s goal is to provide housing and wraparound support for residents that’s informed by that trauma, according to Echohawk.
As part of its contract with King County, Eagle Village is required to operate at near-full occupancy of its 24 units. And unlike transitional housing, Eagle Village, considered “bridge housing,” doesn’t put a time limit on how long people stay.
The goal, Belgarde said, is to get “as many relatives off the street as possible,” connect them to work and community, and then potentially transition them to permanent housing in Chief Seattle Club’s low-income ?al?al (“home”in local Lushootseed) building, opening in 2021.
A new start
Each of the six modular trailers was purchased for $90,000. Each includes four apartment units at roughly 12 by 15 feet – roughly amounting to a generous dorm room that includes a small kitchen area and personal bathroom. Nooksack artist Louie Gong’s company, Eighth Generation, donated valuable wool blankets for each bed.
Chief Seattle Club also invited a traditional medicine man to bless each of the buildings so residents felt the community had prepped and cleansed the spaces for them, preparing them for a new beginning.
In her new room, St. Marks keeps a braid of sweetgrass by her window and has a plastic tub to store all of her crocheting and quilt supplies. At Eagle Village, she can continue seeing her women’s group, and she’s set her sights on traditional dancing again, as well as making her own regalia.
“I’d like to do jingle dancing, but I think I’m a little bit too old for that,” St. Marks joked. “My bones won’t handle it.”
Sometimes, St. Marks still gets the urge to run. But through her women’s group and trusting others, she said, she’s learning that she doesn’t always have to.
“I want to be able to bring a lot of sisters up with me and tell them, ‘It’s OK, you can do this,’” St. Marks said. “I want to share with them the struggles that I went through, but I didn’t die. I’m still alive.”