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Native American Heritage Month: How Denver is addressing housing crisis with first-of-its-kind project

901 Navajo Street will feature 187 units and a full-service health and wellness clinic on the main floor
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Posted at 6:08 AM, Nov 30, 2023
and last updated 2023-11-30 08:08:30-05

DENVER — During this season of gratitude and giving, we also honor a culture sometimes lost in the holiday hustle.

“Native American Heritage Month is a time to honor and celebrate the vast, diverse languages, cultures, and traditions of native people,” said Nick Ohitika Najin Souksavath of the Lakota Indian tribe, who is also a spokesperson with the Rocky Mountain Indian Chamber of Commerce.

As Native American Heritage Month comes to an end, we’re also looking at one of the major challenges Indigenous people continue to face in Colorado: a lack of affordable housing.

“Housing affordability is terrible,” said Lucille Echohawk of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and director of the Native American Housing Circle in Denver. “And the homeless situation is not any better.”

Let’s start with homelessness.

Native Americans are overrepresented, making up 7% of Denver’s homeless population while only representing 1.5% of the total population.

And then, there’s home ownership. Native Americans are underrepresented with respect to owning homes. Nationwide, 57% of Native Americans own their own homes, compared to 72% of white households who own their own homes.

“The housing crisis with Native Americans is very complex,” Ohtika Najin Souksavath said.

He said the vast majority of Native Americans don’t have the funds for basic needs, and the lack of health education and health insurance is critical.

“Diabetes is actually a big killer of our people,” Ohitika Najin Souksavath said. “So, educating how to eat and how to intake sugars is what we truly need for our people.”

There is, however, a renewed sense of hope in Denver’s Indigenous population.

For the first time ever, Denver is building an apartment complex for American Indians who are homeless or the verge of losing their housing.

Mercy Housing will build a 187-unit building at 901 Navajo St. just south of the Auraria campus and 12 blocks west of the Colorado State Capitol building.

It will target American Indians and Alaska natives who qualify based on income and it will also feature a health clinic on the ground floor.

“This is the opportunity to have a full-fledged absolutely well-equipped clinic,” Echohawk said. “The native population of greater Denver is spread across seven counties. The latest census — 2020 — said that we’re 106,000 individuals and we don’t live in neighborhoods. We’re all over the place. We don’t even know who all we are and, I mean, that’s the real challenge. How do we better our outreach capabilities in collaboration with one another to know who our community is and where they’re living?”

Echohawk is hopeful the new building is just the beginning of brighter days ahead for the Native American community in Colorado.

“I’ve seen great strides in Native America and I am just very optimistic about our future,” she said.