Accurate Homeless Counts Need Tribal Buy-In

Mark Fogarty
4/10/13

The best way to accurately make a count of homelessness on American Indian tribal lands is to acknowledge tribal sovereignty and seek the assistance of key tribal members, according to a new report which supplies a toolkit for homeless counts.

Conducting Homeless Counts on Native American Lands: a Toolkit” was written by the Washington, D.C.-based Housing Assistance Corp. (HAC) and CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing), a New York City-based community development financial institution (CDFI).

Outside groups trying to determine tribal land homelessness have a daunting task ahead of them, the report says. Federal census efforts are widely agreed to undercount Native populations. Homeless counts may be even harder, due to “tribal mistrust of the federal government, a lack of understanding of tribal sovereignty and diversity among Indian nations by outside entities, cultural competencies, and legal complexities associated with tribal lands creating additional challenges to conducting an accurate count,” the report notes.

In addition, homelessness on Indian reservations can be complicated and not fit federal definitions of homelessness, leading to it being “often under or inaccurately counted, and populations remaining grossly underserved.”

In rural and tribal areas, the report says, people may experience “literal” homelessness or being in “precarious housing conditions, moving from one extremely substandard overcrowded situation to another, often doubling or tripling up with friends or relatives.”

The report cited a 2006 survey of homelessness in Minnesota tribal areas which found at least 1,239 homeless or “near-homeless” (people staying in other people’s houses) on six reservations: Bois Forte, Fond du Lac, Leech Lake, Mille Lacs, Red Lake, and White Earth. Native veterans tend to be typically over-represented in homeless populations.

Recognizing and respecting the differences between tribal sovereignty for every Nation is necessary for any data collection, the report states, as is having a buy-in, or the commitment of individuals within a tribe who can assist in the process as well as engage the tribe and address any concerns the larger community may have about participating in such a survey. The report points to the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act (NAHASDA) as a government program that has self determination in its very name and devolves much authority to local officials.

Including tribal people, especially those that speak Native languages, is key and outsiders should “value the local knowledge of the community,” according to the report.

A proper toolkit consists of four parts: outreach and engagement on Native lands; survey planning and implementation; partnering with researchers and intermediary organizations; and obtaining funding. An appendix includes some documents useful to a homeless count effort, such as a sample budget, a sample memorandum of understanding (MOU) with tribes and a sample tribal council resolution to authorize a study.

HAC and CSH gave two case studies, one on the Fond du Lac reservation and the other with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians of North Dakota.

A “champion” from within the tribe will be a great asset. On Fond du Lac, the report says, it was the tribal director of special projects who was critical to the effort. Other staff needed to buy-in include tribal housing, human and social services, mental health and a number of others.

“The Fond du Lac case study focuses on a community that worked with outside resources and assistance to conduct its own homeless count, whereas Turtle Mountain conducted its count through tribal members as opposed to outside organizations,” the report says.

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