Counting Homelessness on Tribal Lands

Researchers have created a toolkit to help Native American communities count people experiencing homelessness on tribal lands.

Obtaining accurate data on homelessness within Native American lands is difficult, partly because Native American lands are significantly undercounted by the U.S. Census. To address this concern, the Housing Assistance Council (HAC) in conjunction with the Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH), created a toolkit to enable tribes on Native American lands to conduct their own internal homeless counts. The toolkit is part of their American Indian Supportive Housing Initiative.

“Homelessness is often thought of as occurring only in urban areas where literal homelessness, or those sleeping on the streets, in shelters, or in other locations not meant for human habitation, is often more present,” said Eric Oberdorfer, a researcher for HAC who helped produce the toolkit. “Homelessness manifests itself differently in rural settings where individuals are less inclined to experience literal homelessness, and more likely to live in substandard housing, or stay with friends or relatives for long periods of time, often in very crowded conditions.”

HAC and CSH created Conducting Homeless Counts On Native American Lands: A Toolkit – 2013 to provide tribal communities with a resource for measuring their own homeless and at-risk populations and assessing their housing needs.

Increased awareness of previously overlooked rural homeless populations led to the creation of the Homeless Emergency Assistance and Rapid Transition to Housing (HEARTH) Act, and a funding mechanism called Rural Housing Stability Assistance Program (RHSP). This increased awareness also led to the creation of the toolkit, which provides a reliable framework for undertaking internal homeless counts on Native American tribal lands. The toolkit also helps address issues of administrative autonomy and historical mistrust of federal government research on tribal lands.

Using lessons learned from an internal homeless count conducted by Native American tribes in northern Minnesota, the toolkit contains four critical steps:

  1. Outreach and engagement with rural communities on American Indian and Alaska Native lands
  2. Survey planning and implementation
  3. Partnering with researchers and intermediary organizations
  4. Funding the project

When conducting an internal homeless count on tribal lands, it is critical to fully describe the benefits of the count for securing housing funds for the tribe and obtaining a better understanding of the population in need. Enabling the tribe itself to conduct the count works to mitigate concerns about privacy and confidentiality. Tribal members may fear they are not afforded privacy and confidentiality when outside agencies or the federal government collects personal data. Outreach and engagement starts with finding a champion within the tribe to spearhead the census process. From there, tribal leaders are thoroughly briefed about the benefits of the survey and how it will be conducted. Survey organizers and tribal leaders explain the survey instrument and data collection method, while an outside organization may be brought in to assist with survey development, implementation, and data analysis.

Although the toolkit is still a new resource, Oberdorfer said the increased attention to housing issues on tribal lands is an important first step. “Native lands currently see a dearth of affordable, available housing and individuals and families are crowding into less space or living in substandard conditions. Having accurate numbers that highlight the current need gives us an opportunity to develop a solution. Housing problems on tribal lands were significant and undercounted. There is still a lot of work to do but good data is a very powerful tool.”

Learn more about the HEARTH Act and the Rural Housing Stability Assistance Program (RHSP) at HUD Exchange.

Access more behavioral health and homelessness resources.

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Brian Prioleau
Last Updated: 08/12/2019