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COVID-19 Pandemic Highlights Urgent Need For Housing On Wind River

Savannah Maher

With six cases of COVID-19 now confirmed on the Wind River Reservation, the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho Tribes have enacted some of the strictest measures in Wyoming to slow the spread. The tribes have jointly directed their citizens to remain in their homes except for emergencies, stay far away from elders and avoid gathering in groups of more than 10.

But for many tribal households, those directives contradict one another.

"Every [tribal housing] unit, I would have to say, is overcrowded," said Hope Tidzump, deputy director of the Eastern Shoshone Tribal Housing Authority.

She said her office is chronically underfunded by the federal government. The same is true for Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing.

Both tribes recently received federal grants totaling nearly $10 million to build more than 40 new homes on Wind River. But the existing shortage is so vast that neither housing office believes that will make a significant dent in their growing waiting lists for homes.

In most places, Tidzump said this supply and demand problem would put huge numbers of people on the streets. But here on Wind River, housing insecurity looks different.

"Given the fact that we're all in Native American families, we bring in our loved ones. Our grandparents, we take care of them. Or grandparents taking care of their grandbabies," Tidzump said.

The new rules that come with this pandemic are hard to follow if you share a home with ten or 15 relatives. Tidzump said if one person in a crowded household is infected, stopping the spread could be nearly impossible.

"When it comes to the coronavirus, of course. Even me and my husband, we have eight children. So if one individual tests positive for it of course it's going to be hard to quarantine just that one child and us as parents," Tidzump said.

Kevin Allis, CEO of the National Congress of American Indians, agrees.

"Those kinds of living conditions, when you introduce a virus like this, could be catastrophic," Allis said.

A 2017 study by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that 16 percent of Native households are overcrowded. That's eight times the national average of 2 percent. And Allis said that's likely an undercount, since some might fear eviction from tribal housing if they disclose the number of people they've taken in.

Meanwhile, funding for federal Indian Housing programs has been virtually frozen for decades.

"Federal funding for housing [in Indian Country], although it maybe has increased a little bit over the last decade, it hasn't outpaced inflation. So, it's really flatlined," Allis said.

And for those who wonder why the federal government should be responsible for housing on reservations, Allis said not providing that funding constitutes a violation of treaty rights.

"When tribes ceded millions and millions and millions of acres [to the United States], in exchange for all that land that was worth a fortune, the tribes got forever for their healthcare to be taken care of, all their education needs taken care of, all their infrastructure taken care of," Allis said.

He has spent the past few weeks lobbying Congress to uphold its treaty responsibilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Congressional stimulus bill that's poised to be signed into law might be a step in that direction. It sets aside $8 billion in direct funding to tribes, and another $2 billion to federal Indian programs.

Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is vice-chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. He was pushing for about twice that amount of funding. But he called this bill a good deal for Indian Country, especially the $300 million headed to federal Indian Housing Programs.

"The housing dollars have not been there for tribes," Udall said. "And the good thing about this, is we now have a big infusion into housing."

But Eastern Shoshone Business Councilwoman Karen Snyder said she'll believe it when she sees it. Historically, she says federal grants and appropriations to Indian Country don't materialize in the amount tribes are expecting.

"We always see that, the trickle down effect," Snyder said. "By the time the actual dollars get to the tribe, it's such a small pot of money it's like, geez, why did we go through all these administrative hoops just to end up with this?"

She hopes this time is different, but said the Eastern Shoshone Business Council isn't simply waiting for federal aid to come through. On the housing front, they have a plan to turn the tribe's temporarily shut-down business into emergency quarantine housing for sick tribal members.

"Our Shoshone Rose Casino and Hotel, because it is currently closed because of COVID-19, we would get some of those rooms available," Snyder said.

During this pandemic, Snyder said the federal government has been more engaged in matters like housing insecurity on reservations than she's ever seen as a tribal leader.

"We do see a silver lining, and it is for the federal government to actually start paying attention to Indian Country," Snyder said.

But she added that it shouldn't have taken a global pandemic for the government to start working with tribes.

If and when federal aid does trickle down, Snyder said emergency housing will be a priority for the Eastern Shoshone Tribe. For now, they're doing what Indian Country always does during a crisis — taking care of their own with what resources they have.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Savannah Maher, at smaher4@uwyo.edu.

Savannah is a Report For America corps member. 

Savannah comes to Wyoming Public Media from NPR’s midday show Here & Now, where her work explored everything from Native peoples’ fraught relationship with American elections to the erosion of press freedoms for tribal media outlets. A proud citizen of the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe, she’s excited to get to know the people of the Wind River reservation and dig into the stories that matter to them.
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