May 18, 2017

Breaking Cycles of Homelessness in Urban Indian Communities: My Year of Service

I suppose that I should start this off by introducing myself. My name is A.J. Myers, and I have been a Resilience AmeriCorps VISTA member for about six months now. I am partnered with the Denver Indian Family Resource Center (DIFRC), a family services agency with a proven track record of providing intensive case management services, Indian Child Welfare Act advocacy and community programs to Denver’s American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) community.

Within the past couple years, our organization noticed an important need that was not being met: affordable housing for members of our community. DIFRC began to think outside the box and decided to pursue the creation of a Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) development designed to meet the needs of Denver’s AI/AN community.

The Need for Stable, Affordable Housing for Denver’s Native Community

Denver has long been an important place for Native tribes and people. The area where Denver now sits was once sacred territory of the Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes. More recently, Denver was a relocation city under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956. Currently, Denver is a hub for Native people across the West. Around 50,000 AI/AN people, or about 45% of AI/AN people in the state of Colorado, live in the Denver metro area.

Native folks in the Denver area are disproportionately affected by poverty, substance abuse and health problems. About 90% of the people DIFRC serves report an income of less than $14,000 for a family of four – far below the Area Median Income of $83,900. At the same time, Denver has some of the fastest growing housing costs in the country. This disparity means that many in Denver’s AI/AN community experience or are at risk of experiencing homelessness.

For many of the families we serve, stable housing is one of the major obstacles preventing families from retaining or reuniting with their children. DIFRC recognized this need and realized that making well-designed homes that are affordable is a vital step towards breaking cycles of poverty and homelessness in Native communities.

Collaboration to Bring Vital Services to Native Communities

To bring this vision to life, DIFRC has partnered with Cardinal Capital Management. In this partnership, DIFRC will serve as the primary on-site service provider. The process will take several years, but when complete will result in the construction of a Permanent Supportive Housing (PSH) development and community center.

Both DIFRC and Denver Indian Health and Family Services (DIHFS) will offer on-site services, allowing residents and community members to access necessary services in one location, rather than making trips across town to do so. DIFRC will offer intensive case management, family services and community programs. Through an on-site clinic, DIHFS will provide medical, dental and mental health services.

In addition to providing affordable homes and wrap-around services, this development will serve as a community center for Native folks living in Denver. The design will incorporate many elements of Native culture and architecture, creating a comfortable, culturally-appropriate, central gathering place, something Denver’s spread-out Native community does not have.

The development plans include abundant community space that can be used for gathering, displaying art and selling crafts. DIFRC’s vision also includes a commercial kitchen that can eventually be used for job training, an indigenous community garden for growing fruits and vegetables both for residents and for selling to local businesses, and a playground and basketball court to offer gathering places for children and teens.

My Role as a Resilience AmeriCorps VISTA Member

As a VISTA, I am in charge of project management for the PSH development, including coordinating planning meetings and phone calls and tracking successes and challenges as we progress. Additionally, my responsibilities span many areas of the organization, including finance and development. Through these activities I am ensuring that DIFRC has the capacity to continue offering services, both in the near future and when the PSH development is completed in 2021.

So far, my VISTA service has been one extended learning experience. I have learned -- and continue to learn -- much about affordable housing policy, community economic development and the unique challenges facing Urban Indian populations. Sometimes it is challenging, but it is also incredibly exciting. I look forward to the work I will do over the second half of my VISTA year of service.

A.J. Myers is a Resilience AmeriCorps VISTA member hosted by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center