Angel Spirewhitch sat at the far end of a cafeteria-style table, his back pressed up against the wall, his right hand swishing a piece of garlic bread across a plate to absorb an exhausted supply of red sauce leftover from his spaghetti breakfast.
It was almost 9 a.m. at the Chief Seattle Club, and early risers populated the cafeteria to snag a hot plate and coffee for breakfast to kick off their day. The atmosphere was collegial, people chatting among themselves while the morning news played in the background.
The Chief Seattle Club, a nonprofit, offers services to Seattle’s Native American homeless population that they can’t find elsewhere and helps clients connect with other agencies to acquire housing and other help.
Its small team manages that with a budget built entirely of donations and a dedication born out of the knowledge that without the Chief Seattle Club, the unique, supportive community built over the years would be left to operate in a system of government-provided care that had failed them and their ancestors so many times in the past.
“We’re finding solutions that we know how to do,” said Colleen Echohawk, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club. “We know how to take care of native people.”
The team runs the four-floor facility at the intersection of Second Avenue Extension South and Yesler Way, neighboring the Lazarus Center and Union Gospel Mission. On the bottom floor, clients connect with the facility’s only caseworker or use a bank of computers. The art room, now shuttered, will open again soon; the club is looking for a new art director.
A single flight of stairs brings a client to the club’s medical clinic and hygiene facilities where they can get a shower, toiletries, menstrual products and a place to do their laundry. The ground-level floor holds the intake desk, offices and the circle room built of warm, honey-colored wood with seats that seem to grow from the walls and a central dais where clients may meet, talk, burn sage and tobacco and connect.
Finally, the cafeteria, where Spirewhitch continued to handle the bread, toying with it as he spoke.
Spirewhitch found the club three or four years ago while wandering Seattle’s streets, homeless. An enrolled member of the Muckleshoot tribe, Spirewhitch said he was raised on the reservation and other communities south of Seattle before becoming incarcerated. After he was released, he began spending time at the club and availed himself of its help with things like housing and health services, but also the community-building field trips and feeling of belonging.
“The tribal members are like family,” he said.
That’s what Echohawk wants to hear.
Echohawk has been executive director of the Chief Seattle Club for three years. In that time, the dynamics of homelessness in Seattle shifted radically, changing from a problem to a full-blown crisis deemed politically worthy of declaring a state of emergency and a vast planning effort.
She supports Seattle’s new plan to combat homelessness, called Pathways Home, but for Echohawk and other natives, homelessness has long been a crisis, one that has disproportionally impacted the Native American community and touched even the housed members of their community.
Native people are still dealing with trauma rooted in their eviction from their homelands and the attempted erasure of native identity at the hands of governmental and religious organizations. They have difficulty navigating systems built by local government and the programs do not always meet their needs, even when they can access them.
She fears that without pressure, Pathways Home could be no better for native people than any previous effort by the city or county.
“I know our people will be left out,” she said.
They have been in the past.
In 2016, 10,688 people were counted homeless in King County. Of those, Native Americans and Alaska natives are seven times more likely to be homeless than a White person, a higher proportion than any other ethnicity. Eighteen percent of people in Seattle’s shelters alone identified as Native American that year, despite the fact that in 2015, only .7 percent of the city’s population did, according to the American Community Survey.
The sheer numbers mean that most people in the native community have experienced homelessness or know someone who has, Echohawk said.
That’s a big part of the reason she and her team exist. They advocate, form connections with housing providers and then follow up with their clients as best they can to ensure that once they’re inside, they stay there.
Chief Seattle Club plans to take it one step further. The organization plans to build housing where the building that holds the Lazarus Center now stands. The building would include a mix of units sufficient to house 100 people with necessary supportive services on offer. The bottom floor will have an art gallery, medical clinic and café.
It will build upon what the club already represents, a geographic space in the heart of Seattle that is run for and by the native community on land from which native peoples were banned just 150 years ago.
“We should have every right to have a place in this city where people can come and feel loved,” Echohawk said.