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Fond du Lac Reservation coping with housing shortage

Wanda Northrup goes to sleep with one child in her bed and one on her floor. A 17-year-old sleeps in his own room, and Northrup's mother and another child sleep in a third bedroom. Two other children are with her ex-husband and will remain there ...

Wanda Northrup goes to sleep with one child in her bed and one on her floor.

A 17-year-old sleeps in his own room, and Northrup's mother and another child sleep in a third bedroom. Two other children are with her ex-husband and will remain there until Northrup gets a home of her own. But when you're 143 on a waiting list of about 250, it's hard to be optimistic.

Northrup, 33, is a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and is one of many hoping for federally subsidized housing on the reservation.

Before she adopted them, her children were all in foster care through Fond du Lac social services, Northrup said. The band's Reservation Business Committee "gave me these kids permanently," she said, "and they won't give me a house."

Northrup said she's encountered roadblocks from the housing department but recently has had guidance from tribal Chairwoman Karen Diver in exploring other housing options.

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CAN'T KEEP UP WITH DEMAND

Housing has long been a problem on the reservation. Today, more band members contact the RBC about housing concerns than anything else, all five members say.

"I get calls from the elderly, the disabled, people wanting to move back to the reservation, calls from younger adults, calls from young people having their first baby," said Sandra Shabiash, who represents the Sawyer area.

As more band members want to move back to the reservation -- the number of people returning grows 10 percent each year -- the band's limited housing resources are strained. Some families have been on the housing waiting list for nearly a decade, while others choose to double and triple up in homes meant for only one family.

"The waiting list has been a work in progress," Diver said. "Families have to wait quite a long time, and the list keeps growing. You might have been on the list for eight years, but there are other priorities we need to look at: The size of the family, homelessness, disabilities."

Housing issues -- who has what, and who's next on the waiting list -- sometimes cause tensions among band members. That may be a result of political and personal overtones that had penetrated the housing department, band members said.

Diver said they are trying to take the politics out of the department.

"It fit our community values to be able to do for people who had a need," Diver said. That was particularly true when there was little money to pass around and band members shared what they had. A sentiment on the reservation goes like this, Diver said: "If you had a car, everyone had a ride."

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Band member Bobby King moved back to the reservation in 2000, into a small home at "the compound," as it's known to band members. The compound is a cluster of tiny older homes that's often a first step for residents. King lived in a mold-infested home at the compound until his asthma worsened. About three years ago he, his wife and two children moved into a new four-bedroom home on the reservation. A month ago, at their invitation, his sister-in-law and her two children joined them because they had no other place to go.

To say it's crowded "is an understatement," King said, "but we have to settle for what we have. We're fortunate; we have a lot of family members and there's always somewhere to rest your head."

Doubled- and tripled-up families are the reservation's version of homelessness, Diver said, a notion recently confirmed by a Wilder Foundation report about homelessness on Northeastern Minnesota reservations. But building a homeless shelter now would mean taking money from other reservation programs such as health and human services or education, Diver said.

'TRIBES KNOW BEST'

Many elders grew up on the reservation in tar-paper shacks with no indoor plumbing. Such living conditions weren't restricted to the reservation, but housing improvements came slowly to Fond du Lac.

That started to change in the early 1990s, when the Fond-du-Luth and Black Bear casinos began funneling more revenue toward the reservation.

For decades, the band received money from the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, which dictated how the money should be spent. There are377 HUD-subsidized homes on the reservation, both rented and owned by band members. In 1996, the Native American Housing Assistance and Self Determination Act was passed. The act did away with a mish-mash of restrictive grants and instead allowed tribes to determine the best way to use the housing money.

"The main focus since 1996 has been home ownership," Diver said.

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In 2007, the band received about $3.5 million for its program. The money is used to buy and build five or six new homes a year, maintain existing homes and run the department. But with a waiting list of about 250, a half-dozen new homes a year is just not enough.

REWORKING POLICIES

The RBC is looking at ways to stretch its housing budget and keep more band-owned homes maintained and occupied.

In the past three years, the band has offered down-payment assistance to first-time homebuyers and has held classes to guide band members through the intricacies of buying their first homes. The band also has explored "cost buy-downs" to help make private-market homes more affordable.

Diver has championed a new $4.5 million, 24-unit supportive housing project planned for completion this year, something that tribal leaders say is desperately needed. Supportive housing offers social services to residents seeking to overcome issues like addiction, poverty or mental illness.

"I think the day that gets put up it will be filled -- the need is so overwhelming," Shabiash said.

The RBC plans to review and rework the housing department's policies, including measures to speed up the process for housing repairs. Meanwhile, band members are being asked to have patience.

"As we're coming down to talk about a $100 million deal [for casino expansion], we shouldn't be stopping and talking in the hallway and spending a half hour ... on someone who needs their kitchen sink plumbed," Shabiash said. "We'll get to the point where these things will be taken care of in an orderly fashion. But there are still the needs of the people and ... the priority is the people."

SEVEN GENERATIONS

Northrup has been on the waiting list since 2005, when her marriage ended. She said she's tired of seeing homes go to those who don't appear as needy, or sit empty for months.

"Just give me the house," she said. "I'll do the cleaning and fix it."

For people like Northrup, who works full time as a bus aide for the reservation, trying a different way to get a home, such as using outside resources coupled with those from the band, could help solve the problem.

The band needs to consider a broader variety of ways to match members with housing, said Ferdinand Martineau, secretary/treasurer of the tribal council.

"We've accepted money, we've accepted grants, bought land and issued land leases without looking at the overall direction we should be taking," he said. "Our charge as Indian people is to look seven generations down the road. We don't worry about what's best for us -- that was taken care of seven generations ago. We're protecting that land for the generations to come. ... The land is who we are."

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