New York is known for being a transient city. Thousands come and go through the heart-pounding city of Manhattan every day. Getting overwhelmed by the concrete jungle can take only seconds, especially for visitors. If you happen to be a Native visiting the city, or having just moved to New York, missing your family and feeling like the most invisible person on earth as you get pushed about the streets and struggle to navigate the subway platforms, you can head to the American Indian Community House for fellowship and a sense of belonging.
Open since 1969, and having endured many challenges, the American Indian Community House is still one of the oldest urban Indian health programs in the nation and a home away from home for Natives visiting or living in New York City seeking their culture, comprehensive culturally competent services, and an open arm welcome from a member of the Native community.
The American Indian Community House provides essential support and guidance to urban Native Americans trying to access NYC providers for basic health and social service essentials—like primary care physicians, education, and employment services. With programs like weekly wellbriety circles, comprehensive Two-Spirit services, mental health services, as well as arts and culture programing and events, AICH is still committed to bringing health and access to the urban Indian community of Manahatta, even in the face of mounting hardships.
In early summer 2017, the American Indian Community House was given just three weeks notice that the Indian Health Service would not be renewing their funding of approximately $1 million annually for urban indian health programs. AICH was also denied a request to IHS that would have given the organization six months of continued funding while working on a corrective action plan. A crushing blow considering the 80 urban Native clients served a month—many of whom have no physical or financial means of returning to their reservations for any type of healthcare—depend on the IHS assistance they were able to obtain through AICH.
The American Indian Community House had funding through IHS to offer $500 towards medical, dental, and optical expenses to NYC Natives enrolled in a state or federally recognized tribe. AICH was often able to work directly with doctor’s offices and have a check cut directly to providers, making it easier for clients to receive services. Also funded through IHS was tele-behavioral health. A virtual mental health program where clients would come to the AICH office and receive counseling from a mental health provider via web conferencing. With the termination of these programs, as well as the loss of case management services provided by the American Indian Community House, social workers who assisted clients in managing health disparities such as diabetes and mental health challenges, IHS has left many NYC Natives feeling—as a community member put it at a recent community meeting—“like they don’t even care about our health.”
“We acknowledge that AICH had some troublesome times in the past concerning the program’s finances and mistakes by management. However, in the past two years, AICH has made substantial changes to its management team and Board of Trustees,” assures AICH Interim Executive Director Ben Geboe. “Under new management, AICH has implemented several changes to correct past financial issues so that past mistakes do not impede the future success of AICH.” The troublesome times have included survival tactics such as using payroll to pay crippling NYC rent and utilities, and underreporting of clients served, due to what Geboe calls “a lack of IHS technical assistance for it’s RPMS.” RPMS is an Electronic Medical Records system that allowed AICH to report client data to IHS. However, AICH case managers were often unable to access the system due to its faulty interface, and/or extensive waits for IHS to administer RPMS user trainings for AICH health workers.
Geboe (Yankton Sioux) has worked diligently to continue to serve the NYC urban Indian community and meet their needs. The complete arrest of programs would leave Natives experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, and substance abuse challenges with no one to turn to from their own community for much needed health and social services. “We are the first people of this city, yet we are in danger of disappearing from lack of support,” Geboe informed New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio in a recent letter, asking for support.
“It’s no secret that there’s a federal movement under this President and Congress to defund Native initiatives that support our people, and ignore Native sovereignty. We may just be a victim of this latest trend against Native services and communities,” said AICH Board Chair Rick Chavolla (Kumeyaay).
In November 2016, the American Indian Community House organized and raised funds for a trip to Oceti Sawokin at Standing Rock. Chavolla, along with members of the NYC Native community, and AICH staff brought relief supplies, clothing, and warm coats to be given to the water protectors bracing for the long winter, as well as served at the various camps at Oceti Sakowin.
“Over the last year by every indicator—both fiscal and programmatic—AICH has improved health services and cultural activities essential to the well-being of our Native community and the more than 150 families we serve each year, but IHS chose to focus on financial challenges we’ve had much earlier,” Chavolla added. Indeed, the programmatic additions of the AICH Drum group, community beading nights, discussion circles providing a space for the voices of the community to be heard on issues like DAPL, and the hosting of Native artists and speakers such as Ojibwe environmentalist, economist, and writer Winona LaDuke have enhanced the organization’s program calendar and it’s value in the lives of the NYC Native community. However, the concerns of IHS about fiscal errors that AICH made in the past were the vehicle used to cut funding. As of late, AICH has been extremely transparent about past funding management mistakes, and has been proactive in correcting the oversights.
As of now, Geboe and volunteers are working to continue programing and find new and sustainable ways to preserve the American Indian Community House for generations of urban Indians to come. “It’s been an uphill battle to get funding commitments, but please remember that our 501(c)(3) non-profit status is still intact and we are applying for funding for numerous programs,” said a hopeful Geboe. One part of the effort is the launching of a gofundme page to help raise funds.
“The abrasive cut of funding triggers the feelings of empty promises the government has historically made with many reservations throughout Turtle Island,” said Shawnee Rice (Mohawk), an AICH volunteer and women’s rights advocate. “We need space, and opportunities to share and learn from each other and just to catch up.”
With the dedication of Geboe, Chavolla, and community volunteers, the American Indian Community House continues to provide select health services facilitated by community volunteers—such as sobriety support—to clients as well as several social engagements and arts and culture events each month. All health-related programs funded by IHS have ceased.
During a meeting at AICH in June, community members decided to take matters into their own hands after learning of IHS’ decision. “This is all we have and we’re gonna fight for it,” an Ojibwe Elder said in tears as the community began brainstorming ideas to endure the difficulties ahead. Without an official funding source, but with an abundance of spirit, sheer will, and community, the American Indian Community House is staying the course.