Tribal liaison, centralized health services, but no new shelters proposed
Reprinted with permission from the Navajo Times
ALBUQUERQUE – Two days after Kee Thompson and Allison Gorman, members of the Navajo Nation who were brutally murdered last summer on the city’s west side by three Hispanic teenagers, Mayor Richard Berry and then Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly sat down at city hall to craft a plan to make sure that this kind of tragedy would never happen again.
On August 31st, a little more than a year after the murders, Berry unveiled 14 key recommendations developed by an 18 member Native American Homelessness Task Force that was set up after Berry and Shelly met.
The task force, which includes representatives from the Navajo Nation, the Pueblo of Laguna, the Pueblo of Zuni, along with city workers, was led by Sherrick Roanhorse, a member of the Navajo Nation, on loan from the Public Service Company of New Mexico, (PNM), one of the many partners involved in the effort.
Appointing a tribal liaison for the city to coordinate with tribal leadership and programs was on the top of the list.
Berry acting on that recommendation, announced the appointment of Dawn Begay, who is originally from Crownpoint, New Mexico on the Navajo Nation.
Begay currently works as the lead caseworker for the homeless outreach program at the First Nations HealthSource, a community facility that provides health care, job placement services and mental health counseling.
“We appreciate your passion and we are looking forward to having your leadership,” Berry told Begay after making the announcement. He added that Begay has extensive experience developing solutions for the homeless population as a member of the city’s Heading Home initiative, a project that has established homes for more than 450 of the most chronic homeless in the city, several of whom who are tribal members, according to Berry.
As the liaison, Begay will reach out to tribal governments to heighten awareness on what life is like for homeless Native Americans in the city, enhance tribal-city partnerships and help implement the delivery of services to fill in existing gaps.
“We need a better communication system between our people and our governments. This is a great opportunity to establish what that government-to-government relationship would look like,” Begay said.
Berry added that the city has already established a good working relationship with President Russell Begaye’s office and that coordination has begun with the Navajo Nation Social Service Department, Public Safety Department and Workforce Development Program.
As the person who has been charged with building a bridge between the city and Tribes, Begay said that she will draw upon her traditional beliefs of K4, kinship.
“I constantly ask myself, ‘What can I do for my community? What can I do for my people?”’ she said.
As part of her responsibilities, Begay will be overseeing the development of a one-stop shop resource center at First Nations HealthSource, located on Zuni Road Southeast, where tribal members will be able to get a full array of services from health and medical to help finding transportation, housing and employment.
“One of the biggest problems our people face when they come into Albuquerque is that they don’t know how to access services,” said Begay adding that tribal members tell her that they often face discrimination when they try to access some city services.
To expand the Wellness Center, Berry announced that the city will be providing First Nations with $300,000 for repairs and upgrades.
Begay added that once the center is completed, she would be exploring ways to bring in traditional healing services.
Acting on another task force recommendation, Berry announced the development of culturally competency training for about 175 city employees who work as caseworkers and first responders. Curriculum for the training was created by Institute for Indigenous Knowledge and Development at the University of New Mexico’s Health Sciences Center.
When thinking about cultural competency, historian Dr. Jennifer Denetdale, a commissioner for the Navajo Nation Human Rights Office, said that it’s first important to understand the history of the federal relationship with Tribes.
“Nobody chooses to live on the streets. It reflects the history of Indian policy, which has resulted in the lack of infrastructure on our own land. That is the source of homelessness for tribal members,” she said.
As tribal liaison, Begay said that she will follow up on the implementation of all task force recommendations, which include: enhancing government data bases with tribal specific information, identifying funding for caseworkers, increasing resources for public housing, developing a resource directory, identifying public restrooms and shower possibilities, maximizing federal funding for behavioral health services, expanding access to emergency shelters and transitional housing and supporting efforts to include homelessness in the New Mexico Hate Crimes Act.
Community advocate Nick Estes (Lower Brule Sioux Tribe) said that he’s supportive of the efforts of the task force, but concrete steps need to be taken now.
“There has to be real material support for the people,” he said.
Helen Tafoya from the Navajo community of To’hajiilee agrees.
She along with her family have voluntarily provided meals to the homeless on the city streets for the past 12 years.
“There is a need for a shelter,” she said. The people who are on the streets don’t have any place to stay and winter is coming. How many Natives are going to be freezing?”
It’s a suggestion that’s been made by others during a memorial for Thompson and Gorman, at a holiday meal for the homeless and in public hearings conducted by the Navajo Nation Office of Human Rights this past year.
“This is a crisis at a catastrophic level!” said Melanie Yazzie, a member of the Red
Nation, a community action group.
“It’s something we are thinking of,” Berry replied during the press conference adding that
he would like to find out first what’s keeping tribal members from using existing city shelters.
Then, he said that resources to build a shelter need to be identified and sought after, which is where the partnerships between Tribes, the city, federal and state governments will come into play.
Adding her concerns, Kathy Little Bear Fox, who helps Tafoya give out food to the homeless, said that she hopes that services implemented under this effort will break down existing barriers for people who have a criminal record. She said that they are some of the most vulnerable because doors are often closes to them.
“They don’t get help even though they are reformed and are no longer a threat to the community. They shouldn’t have to live under the circumstances of the past,” she said.
“There’s lot of hard work left to do. Our sleeves are rolled up,” Berry stated.