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Homeless in Indian Country: Part 1

Parshall voices reflect reservation challenges

Jill Schramm/MDN Getty Lee DuBois, wrapped in a blanket, sits on a bench along a street in Parshall Jan. 10. Like many among Parshall’s homeless population, he relies on friends for temporary housing when he needs a place to stay.

Editor’s Note: First of two parts on Indigenous homelessness

PARSHALL – Through the coldest snap of the winter in January, Clyde Beston was living on the streets of Parshall and staying wherever he could find a place for the night.

Beston said he became homeless Dec. 3 when a residential improvement project required him to move out of the house in Parshall where he had been living. Having previously worked in the oil field, a disability that took his sight in one eye and the post-pandemic economy left him without a job.

“Basically, it’s just a real struggle,” he said. “My kids stay with my mother. I’m very grateful. I’ve been counting my blessings. It gets real long. Sometimes I feel overwhelmed with the everyday things.”

Homelessness on North Dakota’s American Indian reservations isn’t well tracked, but advocates who work with homeless individuals say the numbers they do see are concerning.

About 30% of individuals entered into North Dakota’s Homeless Management Information System in November were Native American, Alaskan native or Indigenous, which also was a typical percentage for the past year, said Shawnell Willer, North Dakota Continuum of Care (CoC) coordinator.

“What we know in North Dakota is that about 13% of our population is Native American overall, so that tells us that we have a rather high racial inequity,” she said. The CoC’s numbers typically do not include Native Americans who are homeless on the reservations, she added.

The CoC consists of public and private organizations that plan for and provide a response system dedicated to preventing and ending homelessness in the state. The CoC can work with a tribe to assist in obtaining grant funding to address housing or homelessness if the tribe has approved a resolution to participate. Only the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in North Dakota has approved a resolution.

In Parshall, where several homeless individuals gathered in January to talk about their situations, resources for homeless individuals are limited. Along with a need for more affordable housing, the homeless population cited a desire to see improved housing, more public transportation services, assistance with access to the internet and cell phones and help obtaining identification documents. Where resources are available, they can be difficult to locate and the criteria to qualify exclude some who need help, they said.

Struggles with sobriety or past criminal convictions that limit access to housing and jobs are difficulties faced by some homeless individuals.

Shayreen Fox said she went through a sober living program, returning to the Parshall area on the Fort Berthold Reservation, where she has been unable to find housing. Currently, she is staying with family. She said she would like to get a home of her own and pursue nursing training but maintaining sobriety has been a challenge.

“I would love to have a home, a steady place,” said Gus Forsman.

The 40-year-old Parshall resident stays at his lake ice house, where he enjoys fishing and can stay warm with a propane heater. In the summer, he lives in his camper at the lake.

He would be willing to leave the reservation for something better but said he finds it difficult to save money or find a job. He said he stays to be close to his children, who are living with their grandmother, and because he is hopeful that spring will bring more job opportunities.

Another Parshall resident, identified only as Royce, has been living in a recreational vehicle since losing his mobile home in a fire a year ago. His council representative assisted in getting him a generator and gas and oil to fuel it.

Finding the RV too cold in the winter, Royce said he hopes to eventually get another mobile home but the assistance system moves slowly.

Mervin Packineau, tribal council representative for the Northeast Segment, which includes Parshall, said Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation has been adding to the housing stock and moving people off housing wait lists in Parshall. The tribe moved tenants into three new eight-plexes last summer. Additionally, he said, other apartment buildings that aren’t tribally owned have occasional vacancies.

Many of the houses in Parshall that are in need of or going through rehabilitation are part of the federally-run Fort Berthold Housing, which is separate from tribal housing, Packineau said. Those renovations are continually ongoing as funds are made available, he said.

“We are trying to combat the need for housing,” he said. However, he said, there are homeless individuals who do not apply to get on the housing list for whatever reason.

The homeless population lists reasons such as long waits, disqualifying criminal records, concerns about privacy from landlords in public housing and lack of enrollment in the Three Affiliated Tribes. Packineau said some of the concerns are unfounded. For instance, tribal members receive housing preference, but one does not need to be enrolled to receive assistance.

There also are temporary housing options that include Lucky Mound Lodge in Parshall, which rents rooms up to three months while people look for more permanent housing.

“It seems like they are always full, too, but we do have some openings every now and then,” Packineau said.

Utilizing a former school building for a homeless shelter has been suggested, but Packineau said it is in poor condition, and the cost to rehabilitate the building is such that it would be better to tear it down and build new.

The tribe opens the Parshall Memorial Veterans Gym around the clock for people who need an emergency place to stay. Elder meals, served in the building daily, are open to anyone facing hunger.

Even so, most homeless individuals choose to stay with friends or relatives, Packineau said.

Staying with people he knows is how Geddy Lee DuBois, 41, lives out his days. He attempted to become a firefighter, but an addiction to alcohol faded those dreams. He has been through treatment programs, discontinuing because he feels alone away from the reservation.

The tribe sends members to out-of-state treatment centers, giving them a free sober house to transition back when they return. However, Packineau noted the best success rates are among those who don’t return to the same environment they left.

A 21-year-old from Belcourt, identified only as Keisin, said he wanted to be a psychologist but never had the opportunity to attend college. Hoping to get to Bismarck while traveling with friends, he ended up stranded in Parshall and homeless, either sleeping outside or staying with friends. Although a job hasn’t correlated with housing in the past, he said he knows that if he keeps working and saving, he can eventually get out of his situation. His goal is to be working and he said he doesn’t care where that takes him, as long as it is not back his former crowd that tried to drag him down.

“I just don’t want to go back home, because that is not the right move,” he said.

Blake LaVallie Jr., 48, who came to Parshall from Belcourt nearly two years ago, works for a restaurant and stays in an abandoned recreational vehicle. In the summer he helps out his uncle as a mechanic.

An unfortunate childhood and a series of personal losses – a grandmother, mother, wife and a girlfriend – created instability that led to alcohol abuse and troubles with the law.

“It’s kind of like you lose your spirit,” LaVallie said, although he added he’s ready to start over again.

Packineau noted jobs are plentiful on the reservation for those who want to work.

“If you are looking for a job you can pretty much get one,” he said. “There’s a lot of job openings, a lot of construction going on right now, and especially in the Parshall area. There, we’re building a new community center. We’re short of workers. Even at restaurants, we’re looking for workers.”

In many cases, criminal records aren’t a factor, he said.

“If you put in an application, we pretty much put you to work,” he said.

Mori White Tail, 62, holds a carpentry degree and once held good jobs in construction and the oil field. He fell into homelessness after leaving his oil field job, but he was living in an apartment in January. Still, he wants to get away to a better environment where it’s easier to maintain his sobriety.

“I just want to get a chance to change things for myself for the better,” he said.

What would help, he said, is “if I had an advocate or somebody to help me through the things I don’t understand.”

Kayla Hook, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa and a native of the Spirit Lake Reservation at Fort Totten, came to Parshall more than two years ago with a friend after living in Bismarck. She has worked in Parshall in store management but it hasn’t translated into a place to live.

She lived in her car until it was vandalized.

“I walk around all night until I can’t walk anymore,” Hook said. “People will stop and be like, ‘Hey, you need a ride somewhere, and even if it’s going backward from where you are, just to have a little ride, it’s time to sit and comprehend, ‘OK, what’s the next move going to be?'”

The homeless have developed a sense of community in Parshall, she added.

“Sometimes we’ll all meet up at the same spot just to make sure we’re all good and we all watch out for each other,” she said. “What we’re trying to do is to survive. There’s been numerous times I wanted to give up but I’m not going to give up.

“I know I’m going to have a home one day. It’s just going to take a lot of time, a lot of work, a lot of effort,” she said.

A homeless individual known as “Beep” said he made an attempt at a job but it didn’t work out. From age 11 until released from prison about four years ago, Beep, 51, never spent more than five months on the outside. That record, as well as not having a work history and never developing the associated people skills, inhibits his moving forward, he said.

“This is the best I’ve ever done,” he said of the past four years. “I ain’t doing good, maybe, to you. To me, I’m doing great. I ain’t harming nobody. I’m not stealing from nobody. I’m not wanted by the cops. And I’m free,” he said. “It’s not the best, but it’s a lot better than I was doing.”

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