Donalda Lyons’ phone began ringing on the first day Eagle Village opened its doors to Indigenous homeless people in November 2019. The shelter, tucked away in Seattle’s industrial SODO neighborhood, was created to address the unique financial disparities and systematic oppression of Native people in Washington state.
Native people account for only 1 percent of the general population in King County, yet it is estimated that of the 11,751 people in King County who are homeless, 15 percent are Indigenous.
Lyons, who is the housing program manager of Chief Seattle Club and Native herself, said the need to house vulnerable populations has only continued as the pandemic persists and more people are pushed past their financial means into homelessness.
In its first year, the Eagle Village transitional housing project run by Chief Seattle Club has filled all 29 of its rooms. The pilot program has been a success, but operating in the throes of a pandemic has also come with challenges.
“Everybody has different traditions, even though we’re all one people,” Lyons said. According to Lyons, there are many tribes passing through Eagle Village at a given time, and every person keeps traditions a little differently. Talking circles, smudging with sage and a medicine garden are all customs residents can choose to partake in. “There’s sage everywhere. You’ll see it in their windows,” Lyons said. “You find it all over.”
Eagle Village is not a traditional shelter. It offers unique housing options, which have turned out to be overall advantages during a pandemic. Instead of large communal spaces, the village is divided into a combination of tiny homes — donated by King County in March 2020 — and separate, dorm-like lodgings. Tent encampments and shelters have never been ideal, but the threat of an airborne virus has made more people want to stay away from crowded places and seek any barriers.
Residents are also allowed to come and go as they please — unlike some shelters that enforce strict schedules. Residents at Eagle Village have the security of knowing their rooms won’t be given up until they are ready to live elsewhere. Eagle Village receives members in distress, feeds and houses them and gives them access to medical care. While at the facility, they also receive assistance with obtaining IDs and employment. Once residents are stabilized, they are assisted in finding permanent housing.
Just before the pandemic, Lyons had five residents who she felt confident were ready to look for housing, but the lockdown and subsequent unstable job market has left her residents in a state of uncertainty.
“All our members who were working lost their jobs,” Lyons said. “They were in a good position and then the pandemic hit, and so now everything’s back at square one.”
According to Lyons, only 10 percent of Eagle Village residents have gone back to work, and the remaining are still searching for employment. Lyons explains that it’s difficult to move ahead and plan without reliable income and predicts it will force residents to remain for longer periods of time at the shelter. Instead of a one-year stay, residents could remain at Eagle Village for two years, maybe longer.
Every resident at Eagle Village has their own unique set of circumstances as to why they find themselves living in King County.
“It’s 50/50 who are from [Washington] originally and who are not,” Lyons said. “Some people, like I said — their grandfather or parent got relocated here and so they just stayed here and ended up in this situation. … But there’s also those people who have come here because they can’t find work on the reservation.”
Chief Seattle Club has hired two new outreach workers, who are Native as well, in the hopes of tracking more homeless Natives and matching who would be a good fit for Eagle Village and other available resources. But Lyons is constrained by her capacity. Ideally, she wants to see a Seattle that is home to three or four Eagle Villages to match her people’s needs.
“We definitely know that there are brothers and sisters outside that we’re not reaching,” Lyons explained.
Sitting in front of colorful modular trailers that once housed Texas oil workers, Sabina Lopez says her new home has given her a sense of security she hasn’t had for 13 years.
Previously, Lopez had been chronically homeless. The combination of a drug addiction and a seizure condition made it difficult for her to work. In addition, living in a traditional shelter severely limited the hours she had a roof over her head and had services, such as drug treatment, so she had a hard time achieving stability and independence.
Eagle Village has no move-out dates for its residents, and Lopez believes this has made all the difference. “Other places weren’t really like a home,” Lopez said. “You had to get up early and leave at five o’clock in the morning at some shelters.”
Lopez has been living at Eagle Village for the last 10 months. Recently, a Chief Seattle Club caseworker assigned to Lopez secured a Section 8 housing voucher for her. Lopez has spent the past week touring apartments and plans to choose the one she likes best by next month. “This will be my first year being able to have a Thanksgiving in my own home and having a Christmas tree,” Lopez said. “So, I’m really excited.”
Fortunately, despite the COVID quarantine, Lopez did not lose her sole source of income selling newspapers as a Real Change vendor — the job she has had for six years. Many of Lopez’s friends with other kinds of jobs have not been so lucky. Watching them struggle with filing unemployment, Lopez wonders if she’d had a different job if she would be in the position she is today.
An unexpected positive from living at the village has been that Lopez has been asking more questions about her heritage and ways she can participate.
Lopez doesn’t know a lot about her Native ancestry, so for most of her life, she has identified more with her Hispanic roots. Her mom told her that her great grandparents were full-blooded American Indian.
Lopez has been working with a caseworker at Chief Seattle Club to fill out her family tree so she will know exactly which tribe she is affiliated with. “A lot of people that I know always asked me, and I’m like, ‘Well, I don’t know,’” Lopez said. “It’d be nice to be able to have an answer for them.”
Read more in the Nov. 4-10, 2020 issue.