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Overcrowded Lives: The First In A Series On The Reservation Housing Shortage

Melodie Edwards

The two tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation are growing and prospering. The Northern Arapaho is expected to reach 11,000 this year, the Eastern Shoshone is almost 5,000 strong. But while the number of people has been expanding, the number of homes where all those people can live has not. The situation has led to severe overcrowding, and the social problems that come with that. 

85-year-old Northern Arapaho elder Kenneth Shakespeare has lived in this house north of Arapaho with its view of the mountains and fertile hayfields for a lot of years. 

“I’ll say about 20 some years. I bought this land here when I was working on South Pass.”

He raised seven children here, but now he’s in the early stages of dementia and it's his kids turn to take care of him. His daughter, Lynell, gives me a tour of the four bedroom, two bath home she grew up in.

“But, yeah, so that's this room,” she says, sweeping an arm around a tidy room with a large window. “This is his.”

I notice a cot set up to one side. “And over here?”

“My sister, they will stay every now and then,” Shakespeare says, “and that's where they sleep with her grandkids.”

Plus, three of her children live here with their own families. To be clear, at any given time, between ten and thirteen people live with Kenneth Shakespeare. Lynell herself lives nearby and shares her home with another daughter and her family. But between the two households there isn't a lot of income.

“Right now, we're really hurting,” Shakespeare tells me. 

Part of the problem is that Lynell hasn’t been able to work the last couple years since she got cancer. Only two of the 17 people in these households is currently getting a paycheck right now. And when you add in her dad’s social security, that’s not much. But it’s not just the Shakespeare’s. The median household income on the reservation is only $16,000 compared the rest of Wyoming that earns $54,000. And that’s with multiple families pooling their resources.

“I sleep in with my mom and dad…in that room with that bunk bed and stuff?” Lynell’s 8-year-old granddaughter Taya Dixey tells me. “I like to sew in there. I sew keychains and stuff.” She shows me some of the traditional bead work her grandmother has been teaching her. Grandma Lynell says it would be nice if Taya’s family could move into a trailer they have on the property, but says that would cost $6,000 they don’t have just to install an electrical pole. Lynell says, one of her daughters is on the waiting list for low cost tribal housing but has already been waiting for two years. But Lynell says even if you get such housing, it can be sketchy.

And so for now, Lynell says her family prefers to live together and take care of their elders, even if it is crowded.

Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Director Patrick Goggles says many families make the same decision, even his.

“A grandparent, parents, younger children and maybe the older brother. That’s not uncommon. We find that a cultural value that enhances our family life.”

But due to a high birth rate that Goggles says has led to a sudden population explosion on the reservation, that traditional lifestyle is strained. And the need for housing is greater than ever before.

“We determined that we need 600 units to meet the entire need.”

Currently, there are only 230 units for the entire tribe. That means, 55-60 percent of the tribe could be categorized as homeless because they’re couch surfing, or aren’t the primary owner or renter of the place where they sleep.

Northern Arapaho Tribal Administrator Vonda Wells recently gave a talk at a Native Health Conference on the health effects of overcrowding.

“In a home where there’s no space, where people are all trying to find their own place and there’s nowhere to relax,” Wells says, “people get stressed and they, you know, things happen. Violence happens.”

And Wells says with more domestic violence comes chronic illness, like hypertension, diabetes, heart disease, depression and substance abuse. And she says, overcrowding is especially hard on kids.

“One example would be this little boy who’s sleeping on a bench,” she says. “This child may be rolling off the bench, getting back up on there, laying down again, it being hard. Your body is sore. And sending this child to school. And then, him trying to learn, trying to think about what his teacher’s telling him, and he’s exhausted.”

Wells says, going forward, tribal leaders have been brainstorming ways to eliminate overcrowding without giving up on multi-generational living. She says new housing designs should accommodate lots of families with six to ten bedrooms and lots of bathrooms.

Tribal Housing Director Goggles shares that vision. “A vaulted ceiling that gives a living room and kitchen a larger look. But it allows a family to have birthdays, ceremonies, we have wakes in our homes.”

For the Shakespeare family, such a roomy kitchen would be great on a day like today. The family is drying elk meat.

But there is one big obstacle for tribes who want to design homes to better fit to their cultural lives, and that’s money, of course.

We’ll explore how both tribes are tackling that problem, and the responsibility of the federal government to help when our series on the reservation housing shortage continues in September.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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