Amid COVID-19 restrictions and cases, the Chief Seattle Club is expediting construction of two new equitable housing projects in King County to support unhoused Native people.
“We hope to bring back a sense of community for our urban Native folks. Being in the urban area, our community is truly fragmented, isolated from one another beyond what COVID-19 is doing now,” said Derrick Belgarde, Chief Seattle Club’s deputy director.
The Chief Seattle Club is a nonprofit organization based in Pioneer Square that ensures Native people have their basic needs met. Starting with a day center where members can connect with resources and their first housing facility, which is in SODO and called Eagle Village, the organizers have dedicated themselves to providing sacred spaces for the American Indian/Alaska Native regional population experiencing homelessness, through community-based efforts.
“When they come to the Chief Seattle Club, it’s great. They’re around other Native folks and they feel safe, comfort and hopeful. But then when they go back, they’re scattered around the city and they lose connection and the feeling and sense of belonging,” Belgarde said.
Juan Del Prado, a resident at Eagle Village and member of the Tlingit tribe, can attest to the impacts of Chief Seattle Club and the opportunities it has offered him.
“I have one word: security. We have a lot of lost and hurting souls that need homes. [Eagle Village] is a great place for the homeless community to experience a stay. I live in this one unit by myself and I have just everything that I absolutely need. It’s fully equipped for someone like me.”
The Chief Seattle Club is currently working on two new facilities for Native people who are facing housing insecurity, but has had to deal constantly with the unpredictable effects of the pandemic, such as stalled construction and higher material costs, according to Belgarde.
Last year, Chief Seattle Club announced its development plans for the Sacred Medicine House and ?ál?al, a Lushootseed word for “home”.
The Sacred Medicine House will be in Lake City and have 125 units of “Indigenous-informed housing for people experiencing homelessness,” according to the Chief Seattle Club website.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced in August that she and the city’s Office of Housing would fund the Sacred Medicine House as part of the 2020 Permanent Supportive Housing Pilot Investments. The investments are $60 million of a 2016 voter-approved housing levy that the city leaders are allocating in response to COVID-19. The plan is for several local organizations, including Chief Seattle Club, to construct and manage 599 affordable rental units of permanent supportive housing, especially for Black and Indigenous people and people of color.
“We know in particular the BIPOC community is greatly disproportionate for the homeless population compared to the overarching population in King County. So, this is absolutely critical to support our BIPOC neighbors to get housing and as quickly as possible,” said Laurie Olson, the capital investments manager at the Office of Housing.
“The Office of Housing knows and understands that permanent housing for homeless individuals, in particular, is a long-term solution for homelessness,” Olson said. “With COVID-19 and the pandemic underway, we know that in order to be safe and healthy, you need a home.”
According the Point-in-Time Count by All Home in 2020, 15% of people experiencing homelessness in Seattle, King County, are Native people, while Native people are only 1% of the area’s population. This means American Indians/Alaska Natives are nearly 15 times more likely to be homeless in King County than what the population presents.
These numbers served as proof to Belgarde that the Chief Seattle Club efforts to build more facilities are vastly important: “Without Chief Seattle Club doing all the work, that 15% [of Native people in the homeless population] might even be 20% today. This is the same number I’ve been seeing six years ago, so we’ve just been eliminating the increase,” Belgarde said.
Like Eagle Village before it and the Sacred Medicine House to come, Chief Seattle Club’s second housing facility will be communally based and was conceived to bridge a gap in the disproportionate number of Native people experiencing homelessness. ?ál?al is currently under construction in Pioneer Square and will hold 80 units of housing — 60 units for people experiencing homelessness and 20 for people who need affordable housing — as well as a health clinic, a café, an art gallery and extra space to reach more people in need.
?ál?al’s construction was planned to be done in April 2021, but the pandemic has delayed a potential opening to October. The Sacred Medicine House construction was projected to start in early 2021 but has been pushed to early 2022.
Beyond the physical and monetary setbacks, Belgarde said, “[COVID-19] has taken a toll on the staff. It’s been difficult to keep our morale up. Everybody is heart-driven, mission-driven at our organization so we’re all doing the best we can.”
Although the pandemic has hindered the progress of Chief Seattle Club, after a few months of restructuring, the organization is now “back on track.” The staff members are carrying on to support their Native relatives who are unhoused, Belgarde said.
“These buildings are going to bring that sense of healing and community back together. What this can provide is that support system that everybody needs. Everybody needs a support system to thrive. So, that is what I see and raises my spirits when I think about it.”
I, Yeh-Sun Lee, would like to end by acknowledging that we are on the traditional land of the Duwamish People past and present, the first people of Seattle. I am graciously honored by the land itself and the Duwamish Tribe that was and continues to be on this land.
Read more in the Feb. 24 - Mar. 2, 2021 issue.