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Paula Quam, Forum News Service, Published February 24 2014

Building hope for the homeless on White Earth reservation

NAYTAHWAUSH, Minn. – One of every three people living on the White Earth Indian Reservation today is homeless. It may not be immediately obvious, but officials say it’s true.

“We have a hidden homeless population that you won’t see out on the street or in homeless shelters,” said White Earth District II Rep. Terry Tibbetts, who says their tradition is to never leave anybody without a place to stay. “That means we have a lot of families who can’t get into any type of housing here that’ll end up moving in with their families, so you’ll have kids, parents, grandparents, aunties … sometimes there will be 20 people stacked up in one house.”

But Tibbetts and other White Earth leaders hope to chip away at that problem with supportive, permanent housing complexes with human services built right into them.

One of these complexes, called Giwanikimin (which means “We live in harmony” in Ojibwe), is being built on the north side of Naytahwaush.

The 20-unit townhome-style complex will be built in two-, three- and four-bedroom homes, and will be made available to families with children that are homeless. Applicants for the homes will be scored on a variety of needs, starting with how long they have been homeless and whether they require any other services such as mental health, chemical dependency and child protection services.

Giwanikimin, which is nearly 40 percent constructed, is being built in a traditional Native American style boasting a circular layout with the children’s play area in the middle and a surveillance system for security.

The complex is the first new construction in a wooded area close to the Naytahwaush Community Service Center, and it will have its own community building for things such as child care and other human services programs.

Funding for the $5 million complex came from various sources, including the Tribal Council, an Indian Block Grant through the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and a bond through the Minnesota Housing Finance Agency.

Those accepted into the Giwanikimin homes will have to follow a set of rules and pay a base rent of $130 per month. For those with higher incomes, rent will be proportionately higher, with a maximum monthly rent of $330.

The supportive housing is permanent, meaning there is no rule as to how long residents can stay.

Officials expect families to move in sometime in September.

Giwanikimin is being modeled after the Dream Catcher Homes in Ogema that were built nearly eight years ago with the same concept. In fact, it will be managed by the same team of housing caretakers as the Dream Catcher Homes.

The success rate coming from that complex caught the attention of White Earth leaders like Tibbetts, who believe this can be an effective way to break the cycle of homelessness on the reservation.

“It’s integrating them back into society (from their past) and training them to work their way into a new life and to become good, caring parents,” said Tibbetts, adding that a big part of Giwanikimin will be a new center built near the houses to train residents for the workforce.

“Once you get them wings, they’ll take care of themselves,” Tibbetts said.

White Earth Human Services Director Ben Bement said that while the reservation has many resources to pull from, the complex will require at least four to seven new jobs, with the potential to grow.

“We’ll need three or four people at the child care facility alone,” he said, adding that coordinators hope to create a therapeutic, licensed child care facility designed to help children who may have had to face difficult environmental challenges.

Bement said a case manager also will be assigned to help each family stabilize and strive for goals.

Bement and Tibbetts said several success stories have come out of the Dream Catchers Homes, including single parents who turned themselves into college graduates and professionals with good-paying jobs.

They hope this facility will do the same for the people around Naytahwaush.

And while they also admit the roughly 70 people Giwanikimin will be able to hold won’t address the entire homeless issue on White Earth, it could be a promising start.

Tibbetts said he would like to see similar facilities go up in the seven major communities of White Earth, with Pine Point being a possible next location.