PINE RIDGE, S.D. – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik visited Pine Ridge Nov. 2 to investigate the housing conditions on the reservation.
Located in the poorest county in the United States, Pine Ridge provided Rolnik the opportunity to view housing conditions that reflect the problems present in Indian country throughout the United States. Pine Ridge is the only rural location on her tour of the United States. While Rolnik is responding to the nation-wide housing crisis, inadequate housing is a serious problem that plagues Indian communities in both rural and urban areas.
The invisible minority
LOS ANGELES – More than 200 people attended a meeting with the United Nations special rapporteur on adequate housing held at the California Endowment in Los Angeles. According to the 2000 census, Los Angeles County has the largest Native American population in the United States with more than 153,550 people. The invisible population that is virtually ignored by the census is that of indigenous people from Mexico, Central and South America.
The audience was primarily made up of Latino residents of Los Angeles with a large turn out from the Union de Vecinos and Comunidad Presente. Other organizations were also present, including the Los Angeles Community Action Network, a multi-ethnic organization and a host of the meeting. Various Native American organizations are affiliated with LACAN.
Daniel Zapata who works with homeless people in Ventura hopes Native Americans who live in urban areas receive attention in the report of the special rapporteur. “It’s unfortunate that we have so few Native people in attendance tonight. We have serious housing needs that must be addressed.”
One of the most well-known indigenous organizations in California is Frente Indigena Organizaciones Binacionales, which serves the transnational communities of Mixteca, Trique, Purepecha, Zapoteca and Chatino peoples. FIOB has offices in Los Angeles, Santa Maria and Fresno, Calif., and in Juxtlahuaca in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Odelia Romero, FIOBs coordinator of women’s issues, said there is centuries old discrimination against indigenous people from Mexico. Oaxaca is considered the Indian state and much of the discrimination experienced by indigenous people of Mexico is carried across the border. “There was a structure built that excluded indigenous people, and housing is a part of this. We don’t speak Spanish or English so many times we do not know our rights.”
She explained that getting an accurate count of the people they serve is difficult. FIOB worked in the communities educating people about the importance of the census. Many people are fearful because they have a deep distrust of the government due to their historic relations with the state. “In Mexico you are only counted as an indigenous person if you are older than five years old, live in the community and speak your language.”
Policarpo Chaj, who is Q’iche Maya and the director of Maya Vision in Los Angeles, gave testimony during the meeting. He passionately recounted the war in Guatemala that forced Maya people to flee their communities. “There is a housing crisis in the Maya community. We came to this country as displaced people due to a genocide in Guatemala.”
As Chaj testified on the conditions that brought Maya to the United States, United Nations Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik took notes.
Both Chaj and Romero see the same problems in their communities. Many people work for minimum wage or less. People work in agriculture, the garment industry, construction and restaurants, domestic and janitorial services. Three to four families live in one apartment because it is impossible for one family to pay the rent.
“Many are undocumented and cannot live anywhere else,” Romero said. “The apartments are infested with rodents and have dangerous mold growing on and inside the walls.”
As the meeting closed, Rolnik reflected on what people said. “I heard many stories of precariousness. The United States is held up as a model for the world in its economic and social organization. I see a lot of struggle. One of the jobs of these missions is to show who is in and out of this model.”
The UN Commission on Human Rights created the special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing in 2000 to examine and report on housing conditions in various countries.
Rolnik is making site visits at the invitation of the United States. “The United States has been implementing a variety of programs and policies towards providing adequate housing for everyone. I want to look at their functioning and impact from a human rights perspective.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that everyone has the right to housing.
“Pine Ridge is a case example of the extreme need that is out there,” said Mellor Willie, National American Indian Housing Council director. “They have a great leadership that is focused on working on housing issues. They are so remote and rural that they reflect the reality of rural Indian communities.”
During the daylong visit, Rolnik met with tribal officials and members to gather oral and written testimony.
The opening ceremonies took place at Oglala Lakota College where community members representing the diversity of the tribe welcomed her. She was received and honored by tribal President Theresa Two Bulls and Oglala Lakota College President Tom Short Bull. During the welcoming ceremonies, traditional members of the tribe presented Rolnik with star quilts – a reminder that the Lakota have a distinct living culture.
“We are very thankful that she is doing this,” Two Bulls said. “I’m happy that the United Nations is sending her here. I hope that she can get the United States to listen. We need people to see first hand what our needs are. I hope that interest spreads to hear our story. For too long it has been their story about what we need, not what we say we need.
My slogan when I ran for president was ‘Unity, Understanding and Peace.’ That can only happen if we all come together.”
Tribal members testified that severe overcrowding marks living conditions on the reservation. With an unemployment rate of 80 percent it is difficult for residents to maintain housing. Among the problems are inadequate repairs and mold that is hazardous to health.
A report prepared by the Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing Authority states that “housing built and indirectly maintained by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is in a deplorable state. The Lakota Nation, among other Indian nations, is a party to treaties with the United States, signed in the mid and late 1800s. Among the United States treaty obligations is the provision of subsistence and housing.”
“We are a sovereign nation built on treaties that the U.S. doesn’t honor,” said Myron Pourier, a tribal council member. “We don’t have the necessities people take for granted. They have nice homes that have running water, bathrooms and a kitchen.
Sixty percent of the housing on the reservation has three to four families living in a single house, including children and extended family members. We are severely underfunded.”
Willie stressed that the housing problems facing Indian nations are much more complicated than those of other populations in the United States. “It is estimated that 200,000 housing units are needed in Indian country. Currently 90,000 Native American families are homeless or under-housed. The president’s budget for housing block grants is $646 million, but $854 million is needed just to meet the backlog.”
Bill Means, of the International Indian Treaty Council and one of the hosts of the visit said, “Ms. Rolnik went into homes that are public and private housing. She saw the trailers and cluster housing. The reservation is 90 miles by 60 miles so she was able to get a good idea of the problems that exist here.”
On Nov. 7, Rolnik will brief tribal leaders in Washington, D.C. on her findings. Many leaders who are meeting with President Barack Obama will extend their stay in Washington for the briefing.
Rolnik said many people in the world see the United States as a rich country that does not have a problem with housing. “It is important for the world to know about the housing conditions that exist. It is a question of economic resources.”