Bringing Home Your Environmentalism: For Unhoused Indigenous People, Environmental Justice is Housing Security
As hotel towers and skyscraper condominiums continue to stand empty while the pandemic rages on, an unprecedented number of people is facing homelessness with pitiful support from the government.
In the U.S. Indigenous peoples make up 1% of the total population, but are overrepresented among urban unhoused people, comprising 8% of the unhoused population. Though Indigenous peoples, the original stewards of the land, face homelessness at a disproportionately high rate, mainstream environmentalism ignores its complicity in violence against unhoused people. If colonialism and systemic racism are not considered main drivers of environmental destruction, urban ecological restoration and environmentalism only address symptoms of the climate crisis.
If colonialism and systemic racism are not considered main drivers of environmental destruction, urban ecological restoration and environmentalism only address symptoms of the climate crisis.
Mainstream environmentalism has ignored Indigenous perspectives on environmental care for hundreds of years and is only now adopting traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) as a valid science. Incorporating TEK, such as the Indigenous land management technique of controlled burning, into western environmental practices is a commendable effort but mainstream environmentalism still lacks an interdisciplinary approach. The intersections between the homelessness crisis and the climate crisis are largely ignored.
Ecological restoration and conservation serve to repair environmental damages, yet do not account for the root of the climate crisis. The main perpetrators of mass environmental destruction, like the U.S. federal government and the electric power plant Berkshire Hathaway, are also responsible for the disenfranchisement of Indigenous peoples as the state and corporations work in tandem to commercialize land for profit.
On the front page of Chief Seattle Club’s website is a quote from their Deputy Director Derrick Belgarde that reads “Native people were never homeless before 1492.” Chief Seattle Club is a human service agency that serves American Indian and Alaska Native people who are experiencing homelessness.
Homelessness is a direct effect of colonization, just as environmental destruction is an effect of capitalism. Colonialism and capitalism work in insidious partnership to exploit people and the land, and so solutions to homelessness and environmental destruction must be holistic to adequately address the wide scope of these issues.
Colonialism and capitalism work in insidious partnership to exploit people and the land, and so solutions to homelessness and environmental destruction must be holistic to adequately address the wide scope of these issues.
One contributing factor of such high numbers of unhoused Indigenous people in urban areas is the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which was part of a decades long campaign with the purpose of assimilating Indigenous peoples into mainstream American culture in cities. The ultimate goal of this racist campaign was Indigenous erasure, so that tribal land could be seized by the government for commerce and development.
“We have a lot of folks who are experiencing homelessness, who are more closely connected to the urban environment than anyone else,” Executive Director of the Chief Seattle Club, Colleen Echohawk said. “They have a lot of wisdom that they’ve gained from spending time outside for so long.”
Prioritizing the concerns of stakeholders, including residents and community members, is one of the main pillars in ecological restoration, but this is not in practice as the voice of an entire community is being ignored when unhoused people are not included in conversations on environmentalism.
A common issue that occurs in regards to urban restoration projects is conflicts with unhoused people occupying the site of restoration — typically taking place on public lands. Rather than providing social services and long term housing, municipalities relocate tent encampments and generate transitory solutions that are unsustainable both environmentally and in supporting unhoused people.
In Seattle, millions of dollars have been dedicated to building tiny house villages, transitional housing projects made up of single room sheds and shared bathrooms, under the guise that they are an environmentally sustainable solution to homelessness. In reality these places are unsafe and unfit for residents even as temporary housing. Many of these tiny house villages quickly become dilapidated and get taken back into custody of the city, leaving the residents unhoused again — depictive of how this expensive project is more of a virtue signal and a stopgap rather than an authentic act of care.
People of color and Indigenous peoples disproportionately experience the traumas of constant relocation when these ill-conceived, short term projects inevitably fail. And, despite having little evidence in abating the homelessness crisis, tiny house villages have positive public perception as they get marketed as environmental and humane solutions.
And, despite having little evidence in abating the homelessness crisis, tiny house villages have positive public perception as they get marketed as environmental and humane solutions.
“We faced tremendous barriers with bureaucracy early on. They need to stop thinking that communities of color don’t have capacity,” Echohawk said. “I have the capacity; I can set up systems. I just need the money.”
Bureaucracy from a municipal to a federal level stands as a major barrier to affordable housing as the entire industry of building low income housing operates through banking institutions with no recognition of racial equity or environmental concern. For example, rather than investing in communities who know how to meet the needs of their community members, banking institutions like the Office of Housing reserve their funds for bureaucrat-backed projects like Mayor Durkan’s tiny house villages that fail to care for unhoused people.
“It is morally outrageous that we have such a crisis of homelessness and that Native people are most likely to be homeless. If we don’t tell every person and challenge every elected [official] then we don’t move forward,” Echohawk said.
For unhoused Indigenous people who have no access to basic needs like a place to sleep or food to eat, environmental advocacy is not a top concern in their daily lives. Supporting Native sovereignty by providing food security and accessible housing, so that Indigenous people can be their whole selves, is imperative in deconstructing the white-dominated environmental movement.
Chief Seattle Club projects like Eagle Village, a modular housing community, and Sovereignty Farm, a farm dedicated to Indigenous people growing traditional foods, prioritize community by seeking out and meeting the needs of their community members. At Sovereignty Farm, Chief Seattle Club provides healing for Native people who face homelessness by connecting Indigenous people to their land again.
When Echohawk asked residents of Eagle Village what they wanted to do with a small piece of land in the parking lot, the residents requested a garden to grow traditional medicine and food.
“At the core of indigeneity is connection to the land [and] when you think about colonization, it is the takeover of the land. If we’re [trying] to decolonize, are [they] going to give the land back?”
Returning to traditional food systems and reimagining environmental solutions to meet the needs of Indigenous peoples is just one of many ways in which the land and people can heal each other.
Last updated 12/2/20
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