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Grappling With Native American Homelessness


The American West is grappling with growing homelessness in cities with Native American communities. Indigenous people make up an outsized number of the vulnerable people who live on the streets in places like Albuquerque. So that's where NPR's Leila Fadel went to find out how cities are dealing with the problem.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: This spring, two teens were arrested and accused of killing a homeless Native American man. And it wasn't just the killing that stirred outrage. It was the reason why.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Two teenagers accused of shooting a homeless man, quote, "just for fun."


JESSICA GARATE: Police believe a pair of Albuquerque teens left a birthday party, killed a homeless man for sport, then returned to the party.

FADEL: Many people believe Ronnie Ross was targeted because he was Native American and sleeping on the streets. It brought a new sense of urgency to an old problem - the disproportionate number of Native Americans who are homeless in Albuquerque and the dangers they face. His slaying prompted the city to announce plans to resurrect a Native American homelessness task force, and it prompted meetings like this one.

EDWARD HARNESS: For some of your unsheltered family and others, they continue to experience harassment from the department.

FADEL: That's Edward Harness, the head of the Civilian Police Oversight Agency. And when he says department, he means the police. He's addressing mostly homeless Native Americans at a hate crimes awareness seminar about what their rights are. But what he finds is a deep mistrust.

GERALDINE PANCHO: Us natives - yeah, we get hit here by the cops or by a car - they just treat us like dogs.

FADEL: Women like Geraldine Pancho tell Harness the police discriminate against them, cut up their IDs and get rough. Others echo the same concerns. The police department didn't respond to requests for comment, but Albuquerque police were investigated over accusations of excessive use of force in the past. Now the police department is under a federal consent decree. Outside the meeting, Aline Sanchez has gathered with a few friends. She says they're part of her clique. They travel together. They protect each other.

ALINE SANCHEZ: We're family. We all know each other. We don't give a crap about what happens or anything like that as long as everybody's OK. That's why we always say head count.

FADEL: Head count, she says. At night, they count to make sure everyone survived the day. A 2014 survey in the city found that 76 percent of Native Americans report being attacked while homeless. That type of violence, which continues, is part of the reason the city appointed a tribal liaison in 2015, Dawn Begay. She also works for a nonprofit. She says the biggest problem for Indigenous people in cities is deciding what authority is responsible for helping them.

DAWN BEGAY: Should any issues happening within the city be the city's concern, or should - since they're tribal members, should it be the tribe's concern? So there's this battle of, like, whose responsibility is it? If we take away the boundary lines and jurisdiction, then it's going to be, like, both responsibilities.

FADEL: It's difficult because there are hundreds of different Native American communities in the city, and there's no good counts of what tribe, pueblo or nation people belong to. Then there's the lack of trust between Native Americans and U.S. authorities, a mistrust that comes from a history of betrayal and marginalization. And it can be really hard in cities for Indigenous people who grew up on reservations and don't know the systems, like how to get an ID. And without an ID, you can't get a job.

BEGAY: Because a lot of the systems were not designed to assist minorities. Everything's in English.

FADEL: Begay's working with tribal leadership. City employees and service providers recently got training, learning to better understand Indigenous cultures. But Begay says there need to be targeted programs for the deep disparities that Native Americans face. They make up about 5 percent of the city's residents, but they're at least double or triple that in the homeless population. That's because homelessness is an extreme form of poverty. Native American women working full-time jobs in the city live well below the federal poverty line - more than any other minority group. Michelle Melendez, director of the city's Office of Equity and Inclusion, says the way to fix this is to fix racial inequities.

MICHELLE MELENDEZ: We can change that picture, and what it takes is asking ourselves, why are there not more Native Americans working in our companies, in our nonprofit sector, in education, in city governments? And then we can ask, if we do have native people, for example, working for us, why are they at the lower levels of pay?

FADEL: Tackling these problems, she says, benefits the economy. But right now, homeless advocates say they haven't seen much change, just more of the same. The Albuquerque Indian Center struggles to keep the doors open. They need funding, they say. And the homeless they try to help feel invisible,

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Albuquerque.


Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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