Why Native Americans in Seattle Disproportionately Live on the Streets

Lunch is served in the cafeteria at Chief Seattle Club in downtown Seattle.

Source Mike Kane for OZY

Why you should care

Building a future where Native Americans don’t grow old outside means sifting through the past.

On Veteran’s Day, 15 Native American veterans gathered around a table for a festive seafood lunch at the Chief Seattle Club. Each rose in turn, sharing details about their experiences in the U.S. military.

This Seattle-based nonprofit regularly hosts special meals honoring members, seasonal celebrations and community events like bingo. But it also caters to more urgent pain points — offering hot meals twice daily, homeless and transitional services, hygiene services and case management for the people it supports, all of whom are Native American or Alaska Native.

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Colleen Chalmers is a member of the Lakota tribe and program manager at Chief Seattle Club.

Source Mike Kane for OZY

The organization creates a specific kind of sanctuary, run by and for Native people. And it exists in part to lift up a population that’s bearing a disproportionate brunt of a homelessness crisis spiking across Seattle.

The proportion of King County’s recorded homeless population that is Native American rose by two-thirds in just two years.

That’s according to 2019’s point-in-time (PIT) counts, which are considered the most universal measure for tracking the number of people living on the street on a given night. These counts found that, while Native Americans are less than 1 percent of the county’s population, they account for 10 percent of those experiencing homelessness in Washington state’s King County, up from 6 percent in 2017 (compared to 3 percent nationally).

The counts take place during the last 10 days of January, offering a benchmark snapshot rather than a comprehensive picture. Experts note these measures are imperfect, capturing only a narrow segment of those experiencing homelessness — for example, people in shelters, staying with relatives or couch surfing might not be counted. Though PIT counts are required by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) for regional planning bodies to receive federal funding for certain homelessness programs, the government doesn’t fund the counts.

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Blackfeet tribe members John Arnoux (left) and Randy Tippins-Firstrider sing and play a traditional drum at Chief Seattle Club.

Source Mike Kane for OZY

Counting is left to local organizations, volunteers or law enforcement. Some communities use street-based visual counts, while others also do survey-based counts. Everything from the duration of surveys to the time of day the counts are conducted (for example, children at school during a lunchtime count might be missed) can vary. Tracking how people are counted matters because the data doesn’t just affect those counted; it shapes the narrative about the homelessness crisis nationwide. Even more important, the data drives solutions — and the urgency with which they’re deployed.

While the uptick in Native American homelessness makes it seem like the problem has grown, experts say it could be a matter of counting differently. Community organizations serving Native people, like the Chief Seattle Club and Seattle Indian Health Board, were more comprehensively included in the counts for the first time in 2019, says Colleen Chalmers, a program manager at Chief Seattle Club who is Native. Last year, Native people were the ones who administered the survey portion of the count to other Native people. “Native people have historically and systematically been erased from data systems,” Chalmers says. “When our Native people aren’t seen and heard, they aren’t counted.”

Native people weren’t homeless before 1492.

Colleen Chalmers, Chief Seattle Club program manager

“That disparity has likely always existed and now we’re doing a better job at capturing it,” says Shahera Hyatt, director of the California Homeless Youth Project. Higher numbers for marginalized groups can indicate progress — much as universities with higher reported rates of sexual assault may not be seeing an increase in violence but in people feeling comfortable reporting.

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Chalmers at her desk at Chief Seattle Club.

Source Mike Kane for OZY

Still, it’s not all methodology. Native people in greater Seattle disproportionately experience homelessness, as do people of color more broadly. Blacks make up 6 percent of the county population but 32 percent of those experiencing homelessness, while Latinos are 10 percent of the population but 15 percent of those are homeless. Such group overrepresentation reflects historical and current discrimination, Hyatt says.

For Native American people, homelessness today traces back to historical trauma and abuse by the U.S. government that have shaped relations between their community and Whites. “You start at 1492.… Native people weren’t homeless before 1492,” Chalmers says. Washington alone saw a slew of violent 19th-century battles between Native people and settlers.

That distrust of the system still exists, making organizations run by and for Native people especially important. And gathering accurate counts of those who rely on these specific kinds of support networks comes down to meeting people where they are.

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Chief Seattle Club member Sabina Lopez.

Source Mike Kane for OZY

Once Native people fall into homelessness in King County, they’re also less likely to find housing compared to other groups. The federal Fair Housing Act prevents providers from receiving public funds from prioritizing housing based on race, even if groups are tailoring care for specific populations or aiming to course-correct long-standing injustices.

The federal strategy of disregarding race remains steeped in irony because U.S. policy codified housing discrimination for decades, Hyatt says. In her eyes, this comes down to the distinction between equality and equity. “All of that is really ahistorical and assumes we’re starting from the same foundation,” Hyatt says. “There’s nothing equal about the way we’ve moved through the world.”

In 2021, Chief Seattle Club will open a mixed-use affordable housing project marketed toward the Native community.

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