Serving Native Women Experiencing Homelessness: From Trauma to Transformation

This post is authored by Colleen Echohawk, Executive Director of Chief Seattle Club

As Women’s History Month concludes, we have an important opportunity to discuss the intersection of women’s homelessness, their experiences of trauma, and racial inequity. Native American women occupy a space at the heart of this discussion.

In King County, where I reside, American Indian and Alaska Natives make up five percent of the homeless population. Yet, they make up less than one percent of the general population.  They have the highest rates of homelessness among any racial or ethnic group in the area. 

A recently-released survey from the Urban Indian Health Institute and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) found that 94 percent of the 148 participating American Indian and Alaska Native women in Seattle reported they had been raped or coerced into sex at least once.  Eighty–six percent reported historical trauma. More than half of them were homeless at the time of the survey.  Although the responses are from 2010, they still resonate today.

I often think of an elder I met last winter. She was sitting outside of Chief Seattle Club, our day center where we serve Native American and Alaska Native people experiencing homelessness. She was 54 years old, recovering from a stroke, and homeless. She was in a wheelchair and sitting by her side, her 6-year-old granddaughter. They had been sleeping in a tent outside for two months. Her only request was for some clean clothes for her granddaughter. I spoke with her and began to hear a familiar trauma-related story. It’s a story ubiquitous for our Native people.

A Legacy of Trauma

The elder I met had grown up in the boarding school system. The lasting trauma of the boarding school system is not something of the past. It’s a living, breathing presence in our community and through intergenerational trauma, affects our kids, generations after generations.

The boarding school system was set up by both the U.S and Canadian governments and administered by churches. The goal of the system was to, “kill the Indian, save the man.” Native children and teenagers were stolen from their families, taken away from their land, and placed in this system as a way to strip Native people of culture, language, and tradition. Native youth experienced mental, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of the boarding school system.

My relative’s story is one of survival and resiliency. As a young parent, she took care of her two sons throughout the overwhelming trauma in her life. She worked hard to provide for her family. She moved to an urban area with the hopes of a job and housing, but became homeless in the city. She struggled for decades, going in and out of homelessness, and helping to raise her granddaughter.

Trauma can severely impact a person’s ability to establish and maintain housing stability.  In simplistic terms, the pain makes it hard to seek help, and history makes it difficult to trust another system – it’s hard to believe things will change.

Yet, with the support of our partners at Mary’s Place in King County, we got her and her granddaughter into shelter the night I met her.

Our Systems Have A Responsibility

We see resilience and strength in our people, but we all must accept our responsibility to meet the needs of Native women like my elder:

  1. We must create systems that support and lift up our people in need. If we know that Native women experience trauma and homelessness at high rates, then we must be intentional with our response, and we must quantify our ability to equitably serve their needs.
  2. We must tailor our programs to find answers that address historical trauma. An equitable response demands that we change our systems by offering trauma-aware programs that recognize the historical and ongoing trauma of Native Americans.
  3. We must also courageously address the disproportionality of Native homelessness. Equitable responses will ensure that we see and hear Native women experiencing homelessness.

As a Native woman, I believe that we will find these answers. And I know what we discover will not only be solutions to support Native women, but can help all women experiencing trauma and homelessness.