Native Americans make up a greater number of the U.S. armed services proportionally than any other ethnic group, according to the Department of Defense.
But any Native American veterans who after military service fall into homelessness would find few federal programs directly aimed to help.
This week U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro took a step to change that, announcing a $5.9 million program to provide housing to homeless Native American veterans. The funding will be divided among 26 tribal communities in 12 states.
“This groundbreaking new effort is going to help 500 military heroes to get back on their feet,” Castro said.
The goal of providing housing to 500 veterans around the country may seem relatively modest for a national initiative.
But activists on the ground say the need is urgent.
Poverty remains a critical problem for Native Americans in general. More than one out of four, 26 percent, are poor, according to the Pew Research Center, compared to an 11 percent poverty rate for white Americans.
But residents of Native American reservations don’t necessarily qualify for subsidized housing available in other parts of the U.S., said Gary Cooper, executive director of the housing authority for the Cherokee Nation.
He said the share of funding from the new initiative going to the Cherokee Nation would provide housing for 20 veterans and their families. Perhaps just as importantly, the federal program will put a new emphasis on the issue of Native American veteran homelessness.
“This program is going to allow us to identify exactly how big a problem it is,” Cooper said.
Castro tied the announcement to President Obama’s larger goal of reducing veteran homelessness nationwide. Native American advocates said it is the first time that the federal government has made a focused effort to address veteran homelessness in tribal communities.
Money will be allocated to each tribe, but the Department of Veterans Affairs will take the lead to determine who is eligible for the program.
Along with housing, the program will cover the costs of other social services that veterans might need.
Raymond Vann is a member of the Cherokee Nation, and a veteran. He works at the veteran’s center in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and said he often sees veterans with housing issues, including about three or four a month who are homeless.
Most have mental health issues, suffer from alcoholism or have trouble managing their money, Vann said. “Some of them can’t get organized to get back on their feet.”
The Cherokee Nation Veterans Center currently refers its homeless clients to third parties, a spokeswoman for the Cherokee Nation said. This new federal money means that they will be able to subsidize housing directly.
Tribes participating in the program also include the Navajo and Ogala Sioux. Different tribes received different amounts of money –between roughly $120,000 and $400,000.
Federal officials were clear that the program is intended to provide subsidized housing for a couple of years, not permanently free housing.
Continuation of the program beyond next fiscal year will depend on future congressional approval.
“This is the first step for us” — to identify the overall need, Cooper of the Cherokee Nation said. Then, advocates can “go back to Congress and say ‘Hey, this has been a big deal.’”