Most residents of Denver’s Safe Outdoor Space live in ice-fishing tents. But Grant Davis has his own tiny home, complete with built-in heating and cooling and a door that locks. Inside, there’s a narrow bed, a pillow plastered with NFL logos, and a portable speaker that lights up in rainbow colors. Also: a bag of bath salts. Where would he use those, I asked? Davis chuckled. He didn’t know, either. Though the Colorado Village Collaborative’s Native-Inclusive Safe Outdoor Space (SOS), where he’s lived since last February, offers showers, laundry, and housing referrals, there’s no bathtub in sight. 

People here call Davis, 76, “grandpop.” He first visited Denver in 1971. The mountains reminded him so much of home — he’s a member of Alaska’s Tlingit tribe — that he stayed. Since then, he’d found work at the food bank and Hertz car rental, and received income from Social Security, the VA (he was a U.S. Navy cook), and his tribe. It was rarely enough for rent, though, and over the last decade, he’s cycled between staying with relatives, sleeping in his car and staying at shelters like this one. But he hopes that will soon change.

Denver’s first affordable housing complex designed for Indigenous people is set to break ground this year at 901 Navajo Street. About half of its 190 units will be for people coming out of homelessness, while the other half will house families earning no more than 40%-60% of the area’s median income. Denver Indian Health and Family Services will also operate a medical and dental clinic onsite.

Indigenous people comprise 2.6% of America’s population, but in 2023, they accounted for 3.9% of those experiencing homelessness. The inequity is acute in Western cities: Indigenous people make up only 1% of the population of King County, Washington, home to Seattle, but 9% of those experiencing homelessness. In Denver, they are overrepresented in the unhoused population by 400%.

More affordable housing seems like the obvious solution. But America’s history of affordable housing for Indigenous people is complex, muddied with broken promises, arcane laws, and a toxic loneliness that haunts even those who do find housing. 

Will 901 Navajo give Indigenous folks a place to call home? Or will history repeat itself, and the homes they were promised end up housing others?

Natalie Hayes, site manager at the Safe Outdoor Space, in her office.
Natalie Hayes, site manager at the Safe Outdoor Space, in her office. Credit: Eli Imadali/High Country News

THE 1956 INDIAN Relocation Act sought to further assimilate Indigenous people by encouraging them to relocate to cities. The government promised to help them with housing and employment, but instead they were often left to find jobs, housing and transport on their own, all while facing discrimination from employers and landlords.

Today, 86% of Indigenous people in America live outside reservations, often in cities like Denver, Seattle and Portland, where they resettled following the Relocation Act. As more people leave reservations, they gravitate towards places where they already have family or friends — which also tend to be places where housing is expensive. That’s one reason that more than 16,000 Indigenous people in the mountain West were homeless last year.

Bill Ziegler, Lakota, former executive director of Denver’s Native American Housing Circle, which is leading the 901 Navajo project alongside nonprofit developer Mercy Housing, sees the complex as an opportunity to heal from generations of dispossession. 

“It’s going to finally be a place where we are tribal again,” he said. “Multi-tribal.” 

But history shows that much can still go awry. Portland, Oregon’s Native American Youth and Family Center (NAYA) designed its “Generations” building, a 40-unit affordable housing complex, for Indigenous families, foster children and elders. But nine months after it opened in February 2017, less than half its residents identified as Indigenous. Among other reasons, NAYA blamed federal housing laws that forced it to rent to non-Indigenous people who applied first and more easily met requirements, including no criminal history or recent evictions.

In Denver, Indigenous people are overrepresented in the unhoused population by 400%.

Similarly, in Seattle, King County introduced a new vulnerability assessment system in 2013 that did not take an individual’s race into account. Soon after, United Indians of All Tribes Foundation’s Labateyah shelter for Indigenous youth filled with non-Indigenous teens.

Blame the Supreme Court: The most conservative bench in 90 years has begun deeming more racial classifications unconstitutional, as in last summer’s ruling against college affirmative action. “It doesn’t matter whether the purpose is good (as in) designed to remedy past harm, or whether it’s based on invidious stereotypes or the intent to discriminate,” said Stephen Menendian, assistant director of UC Berkely’s Othering and Belonging Institute.

Public agencies and private providers that receive federal funding cannot discriminate or prioritize tenants by race. It’s a stipulation that frustrates many providers.

“If you’re talking about fair housing, you have to address inequity,” says Natalie Hayes, site manager at the Safe Outdoor Space where Davis was living. The “Native inclusive” site was set up to shelter Indigenous people, but because it receives federal funds, it must welcome people of all races. At times, the site has been full, with at least some of the residents being non-Indigenous. That means other Indigenous folks are forced to remain unhoused while waiting for a spot.

Grant Davis relaxes in his pod at SOS. Credit: Eli Imadali/High Country News

FINDING HOUSING is particularly labyrinthine for those who need it most. SOS staff help residents apply through the Denver Housing Authority, county-led housing lotteries and veterans’ services. Compiling all the paperwork — bank statements, pay stubs, birth certificates, IDs, Social Security cards — can take hours, sometimes days. And that’s just the start.

 “A lot of community members don’t have access to emails, or they forget their login or they lose their phones,” said Hayes. “At this point, we’re creating emails for everybody just so that we (staff) can personally check them.”

Even then, things can go wrong. In September, Davis won a Section 8 voucher through a city-wide lottery but didn’t complete the forms quickly enough. Fortunately, Hayes had already helped him fill out a 30-page application for DHA housing. In January, he had an appointment to sign paperwork but missed it to attend a funeral.

“There’s so many things that feel like they have to go so perfectly in order for it to work out,” said Hayes.

Even if they fill out all the forms and make every appointment, Indigenous people still face discrimination from landlords. In Montana, Minnesota and New Mexico, white applicants have almost a 30% better chance of getting an apartment than Indigenous folks. 

“If you’re talking about fair housing, you have to address inequity.”

Last May, one former SOS resident — Daniel Pretty Sounding Flute II, 52, from the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe in South Dakota — got a DHA rent subsidy voucher with the help of SOS staff. He was excited about getting his own place, but also nervous. 

“If they know you’re from the rez, you’re treated like a dog,” he said.

Initially, he looked at three places. At one, he was accepted but then informed of an additional $400 application fee. At the second, he was quizzed about his income — even though the voucher would cover most of his rent. It seemed designed to discourage tenants like him. 

Philip Garboden, associate professor at the University of Chicago, said that landlords sometimes discriminate in subtle ways. “It’s not like they go into it saying, ‘I don’t want to rent to a particular race,’” he says. “But behaviors, credit scores, job histories are interpreted fairly differently based on your racial profile.”

By July, Pretty Sounding Flute found a two-bedroom apartment, and Ziegler (who went to high school with him in South Dakota) helped him move. 

“This is why I do the work I do,” Ziegler said. “I don’t want to see my people suffering like this.” 

Melanie, her partner, Thomas, and their two bunnies, “the Pawz family,” in a common room at Chief Seattle Club.
Melanie, her partner, Thomas, and their two bunnies, “the Pawz family,” in a common room at Chief Seattle Club. Credit: Evan Benally Atwood/High Country News

THREE YEARS AFTER NAYA opened its Generations building, the organization tried a new approach. It opened Nesika Illahee (“Our Place” in the Chinook language) in Portland in 2020 in partnership with the Siletz Tribe, which had allocated its HUD Indian Housing Block Grant toward the project. Such grants are traditionally used by tribal housing authorities; Nesika Illahee was the first to use one in an off-reservation setting, allowing it to reserve 20 of its 59 units for Siletz tribal members and those of other federally recognized tribes. 

“That was a really big game changer in terms of being able to bring tribal members to the top” of the waitlist, NAYA told Street Roots. 

United Indians of All Tribes Foundation found a similar workaround. After King County’s new vulnerability assessment system filled its Seattle shelter with non-Indigenous youth in 2013, the foundation asked the county to include another question: Would clients prefer a provider specialized in serving those with a tribal designation? Indigenous youth overwhelmingly said yes, and Labateyah resumed serving the people it was built for. 

Chief Seattle Club
Chief Seattle Club Credit: Evan Benally Atwood/High Country News

Similarly, Seattle’s Chief Seattle Club used “community preference” to prioritize applicants from the surrounding area, where many Indigenous folks lived, and now 93% of the 80 units in its ʔálʔal building, are occupied by Indigenous folks.

Such preferences aren’t racial classifications, so they’re perfectly legal. When combined with other indicators — educational attainment, income, home value, utilization of social services, and free and reduced lunch status for children — they effectively serve as proxies for race. But compiling such indices requires statistical sophistication, knowledge of data sources — and time. 

Derrick Belgarde, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, on a building patio.
Derrick Belgarde, executive director of the Chief Seattle Club, on a building patio. Credit: Evan Benally Atwood/High Country News

“It’s just a lot of blood, sweat and tears,” confirms Derrick Belgarde, Siletz and Chippewa-Cree, executive director of Chief Seattle Club. He doesn’t understand why providers can prioritize applicants by age, disability, military service, HIV and immigration status — but not race.

“There’s certain populations where it makes sense … to provide specifically for them,” he says. “What the data shows is that you should be able to do that with Native Americans as well.”

MELANIE HUNT, WHO is Yakama and Spokane, was one of ʔálʔal’s earliest residents when it opened in 2022. Though she lived rough for many of her 51 years — running away from home at 12 and sleeping on Seattle’s streets for most of the intervening time — her demeanor is cheerful and her skin smooth. In her studio apartment, Hunt hangs out with her partner, Thomas, their two bunnies and dog, Bubba, whom she calls “Bubbalicious.” They often walk to the nearby public market. 

“Now when we go out, we can say we have a place to go back to and not be worried about is our tent still there,” says Hunt. “It feels good to come home now.”    

In summer, Hunt and her partner grow tomatoes and carrots on the rooftop community garden. They take classes in drum and rattle-making, help with community cleanups and attend birthday parties for their neighbors’ dogs. They’ve made good friends at ʔálʔal, especially with elders. “They always call us ‘the kids,’” she says, smiling at the thought of being a “kid” at 51.

“There’s certain populations where it makes sense … to provide specifically for them. What the data shows is that you should be able to do that with Native Americans as well.”

But not all the stories end happily. Though a “Housing First” approach that offers housing without preconditions is generally more successful than one that requires sobriety or addiction treatment beforehand, substance abuse or mental illness can persist even after a person has a place to live. ʔálʔal staff say residents sometimes abandon their apartments, either because they don’t want to pay rent, or because they simply can’t get used to the quiet, and to staying inside. 

Back in Denver, Pretty Sounding Flute loves his new apartment, but not its silence. He tries to fill it by reading Dungeons & Dragons or cooking — steaks, potato soup. He also returns to the SOS site several times a week, sometimes riding his bike an hour and a half each way, driven by something stronger than comfort or reason: the chance to see friends, grab a meal, hang out.  

“It’s good for my heart,” he said. But eventually, the time always came to say goodbye, to catch three different buses, and to return to his too-quiet home.   

Daniel Pretty Sounding Flute II makes art and listens to music at his Denver apartment, which is decorated with his art and other items to remind him of home.
Daniel Pretty Sounding Flute II makes art and listens to music at his Denver apartment, which is decorated with his art and other items to remind him of home. Credit: Eli Imadali/High Country News

Raksha Vasudevan is a contributing editor at High Country News as well as an economist and writer based in Denver. Her work has appeared in LitHub, The Los Angeles Review of Books, NYLON and moreWe welcome reader letters. Email her at or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy

This article appeared in the March 2024 print edition of the magazine with the headline “Can affordable housing for Indigenous communities work?”

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