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Project Homekey Creates Homeless Housing Sites, Some Run By Native American Tribes

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

During the pandemic, cities with large homeless populations quickly moved people out of crowded shelters and into empty hotels. Well, in California, the state decided to do more. It is buying whole hotels and old office and apartment buildings and converting them into thousands of affordable new units. Molly Solomon from member station KQED reports on a site that is helping homeless members of one Native American tribe.

MOLLY SOLOMON, BYLINE: A year ago, Cheyanne Wright was pregnant and living with her 4-year-old son, her boyfriend and his mother. And things were not going well.

CHEYANNE WRIGHT: I would say six months, so it was really bad.

SOLOMON: Wright and her boyfriend hadn't intended to crash with his mom. They had moved to the Central Valley city of Stockton to find their own place, but all the rentals they saw were too expensive. So her boyfriend's mother said they could stay with her. But that was a problem, too.

WRIGHT: Like, it was just unsafe and couch surfing.

SOLOMON: They were fighting a lot. And after one blow-up, his mom threw all their furniture in the garage. Space got even tighter after Wright gave birth to their son, Romeo. And money was especially tight after she lost her job at an elder care home during the pandemic.

WRIGHT: I was just worrying about where we're going to stay the next night or what we're going to eat or if I have enough gas to get somewhere. You know, those are all stressful things.

SOLOMON: This is a kind of hidden homelessness. Wright was worried that soon they'd have to live in their car or somewhere worse. With nowhere else to go, Wright made a phone call to someone from her hometown who she thought could help.

JOSHUA RAY: So...

WRIGHT: Here we are?

RAY: Here we are.

SOLOMON: The person Wright called was Joshua Ray. He's a social worker with their tribe, the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians. They're headquartered in the rural town of Lakeport, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. Ray says homelessness and poverty are huge problems for their tribe. That's why they applied for a million-dollar grant from the state. It's part of a new program called HomeKey that's converting buildings, like this apartment complex in Lakeport, into new homeless housing.

RAY: Put new roofs on new gutters, new paint job, all new siding on all the walls.

SOLOMON: Since it launched last summer, HomeKey has already created 6,000 new units in California, a state that desperately needs housing. Here, the grey and white apartment complex smells of fresh paint. There's new AC units and a courtyard with a barbecue grill and big wine barrels filled with flowers.

RAY: This is just like the first step, the first break, you know, in a lot of their lives. They can become better.

SOLOMON: The need for tribal housing is especially stark when you look at the numbers. Here in Lake County, Native Americans make up 4% of the population, but 22% of people sleeping outside or in shelters. Part of the problem - the tribe of 300 doesn't have its own reservation.

RAY: We don't have a big tribe, but we do have a tribe that doesn't have housing. We don't have a reservation. So we got to think outside the box.

PATRICIA FRANKLIN: Well, I see it very challenging because we don't have a place to call home.

SOLOMON: Former tribal council member Patricia Franklin says, through a long and violent history, the Scotts Valley tribe ended up landless.

FRANKLIN: A lot of our members were relocated to the Bay Area.

SOLOMON: An expensive place where tribal members struggled to afford housing. She says moving Native people to cities was also part of a larger plan.

FRANKLIN: Our members didn't know it then, but it was part of an assimilation where the hopes from the government was that we would marry in and pretty much not really be Native anymore, I guess.

SOLOMON: Franklin says homelessness is one of the effects of relocation her tribe still lives with today. Now she wants to bring them home.

FRANKLIN: It's a tough thing when you don't have a place to call home and lay your head. It's like I want my tribe to have a home.

SOLOMON: The government paying for homeless housing for Native people is long overdue, says Colleen Echohawk. She's the founder of the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness. Nationally, Native Americans have the second-highest rate of homelessness among all racial groups, behind Pacific Islanders. That often translates into overcrowding, where two or three families live under one roof like Cheyanne Wright was doing back in Stockton. Echohawk says Native-led shelters or housing projects like this one in Lake County are critical to building trust and community.

COLLEEN ECHOHAWK: When we build our own housing, when we own our own housing, when we run our own housing, we're continuing to message that we are healing, that we are resilient.

SOLOMON: Members of the Scotts Valley tribe hope the apartment building in Lakeport can be a start.

RAY: Everything had to get remodeled, so...

WRIGHT: Wow.

RAY: ...This obviously was a door before.

SOLOMON: Some of the apartments are still being renovated. But every month, more tribal members are moving in, including Cheyanne Wright and her family.

WRIGHT: And when I seen the apartments here, I was like, oh, it's actually really big. You have a big living room, two big bedrooms, a tub. Usually, you don't get to tubs (laughter).

SOLOMON: Her 4-year-old likes it a lot, too. He has his own room now. And at $450 a month, the rent is something Wright and her boyfriend can afford. She looks out from the second-floor deck and takes in the view of Clear Lake. It was once a rich resource for her tribe where they would fish and harvest tule reeds to make boats and even entire homes.

WRIGHT: I can figure out what I want to do for my future and my kids' future, feels very rewarding because my kids get to grow up in a happy, healthy situation in a home.

SOLOMON: A home that's deeply rooted in where she came from. For NPR News, I'm Molly Solomon in Lakeport, Calif. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.