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Native Perspective Could Shift Views on Homelessness

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The city of Tacoma, Washington, now sits on what was once Puyallup tribal land. Many little villages of wooden longhouses once sat by streams and rivers. Food and shelter for the Puyallup came from the land, as did their identity and sense of being. They were bound to their environment through song, story, art, and ritual.

The Puyallup knew nothing of homelessness. Strong kinship ties made sure everyone had a place to stay and food to eat. Today, that spiritual tapestry is virtually gone. The new non-Native residents of Tacoma don’t talk about the spiritual nature of the land. Instead, they refer to it as “the streets.”

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Befriending Amelia

“Hi! I have something for you,” I said, holding out a jar of home-canned smoked salmon strips.

From inside a fortress of apparent junk on a street corner a block from my house, a young, homeless African American woman came out of her makeshift shelter of tarps and took the jar.

“It’s smoked salmon,” I said. “My friend canned it. I’m Alaskan, Alaska Native. My name’s Frank.”

“Thank you,” she said in a small voice.

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“How are you doing? Are you OK?” I asked.

“I’m waiting for Poppy. He said he’s coming back,” she said, turning away but still keeping an eye on me.

“OK, well, I just want you to know people care about you,” I said. “What’s your name?”

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“Amelia,” she said.

I had first noticed Amelia one day last summer when I got off the bus near my house in South Tacoma. A big pile of debris on the sidewalk next to the bus stop nearly blocked the bus door. Tarps, boxes, empty bottles, string, small broken appliances, and cardboard formed an igloo around Amelia.

The police soon shooed Amelia away from the bus stop. She moved her camp a half-block down the street. The dwelling grew over time, and people in the neighborhood got upset. They posted pictures of her camp on social media and griped about her.

I stood up for her by posting a comment saying she’s a human being who deserves respect like anyone else. I was attacked viciously. One man wrote that if I cared about her so much, I should let her move in with me. Many pointed out that homelessness can bring drugs, crime, and unhealthy conditions into our neighborhood.

I knew what it was like being homeless. That’s why I took the smoked salmon to Amelia. I needed to tell her what no one on the street ever told me: that she was important and her life mattered.

The Maze of Assistance for the Homeless

I wanted to help Amelia, so I contacted Maureen Howard of the Tacoma Pierce County Coalition to End Homelessness, who had recently written a moving piece on the subject for the Tacoma News Tribune.

“Unfortunately, for a single woman on her own, there aren’t many options,” Howard told me. “She could probably get into a women’s shelter, but then she’d have to share living space with other women, and that might be a problem for Amelia.”

I emailed the Tacoma Neighborhood and Community Services office requesting help for Amelia and received a response from the office’s assistant director, Allyson Griffith. She said they were well aware of Amelia, and that she had refused their attempts to help her.

In a later interview with Griffith, I learned that 1,005 people are living in Pierce County emergency shelters or transitional housing, according to the county’s 2021 Homeless Point-in-Time Count. Most live in the county’s largest city, Tacoma. No survey of those living outside was done in 2021 due to the pandemic, but the previous year counted an additional 914 unsheltered people living on the streets. So a more realistic current total of those unhoused living in and around Tacoma today-a city of 200,000 people-would be close to 2,000.

According to the survey, half of those experiencing homelessness are White, about one-fifth are Black, 18% are listed as “multi-racial,” 6% are Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 4% are Indigenous, and 1% are Asian. The top three reasons given by survey respondents for their homelessness were family crisis, no affordable housing, and job loss. About 41% self-reported mental illness as a disability.

Griffith said the city runs several shelters in association with community- and faith-based organizations and also runs two tiny home villages, which they call “micro-shelters.” The office also does regular street outreach to homeless camps.

Help was available for Amelia. But there was one major obstacle: She didn’t want their help, and the city couldn’t force her to take it.

Waiting for Poppy

I checked on Amelia whenever I walked to the store. I’d give her a little money and ask if she needed anything. Understanding her was difficult, because she spoke so quickly and the traffic was so loud. But she kept mentioning the name Poppy, and one day, she cautiously revealed a little more about him.

“Poppy took my children, took them to the hospital. He told me he’d come back and get me. I’m waiting for him,” she said.

“Do you really think he’s coming back?” I asked.

“He better!” she said.

Amelia refused help from the city because she was waiting for Poppy to come back and take her to her children. She had been waiting since last summer, and here it was November. I felt like crying as I walked home after she told me that.

A Place of Transformation

I discovered the Puyallup tribe has its own tiny home village for the homeless called “ʔay’gʷasilali” (pronounced Igwasilali), which is a Whulshootseed word meaning “place of transformation.” Located on Puyallup trust land, the village has 30 tiny homes, each with heating and electricity. On-site staff from the Low Income Housing Institute are available 24 hours a day, helping residents connect with social services. Plumbing, cooking, and laundry facilities are located in a separate communal building.

The land was blessed last February in a ceremony by the tribe before construction began. Tribal members danced, drummed, and sang. Puyallup Culture Director Connie McCloud offered a prayer that the land be a place where homeless tribal members are welcomed and helped to heal.

Sharon Lee, executive director of the Low Income Housing Institute, first came up with the idea for tiny home villages in 2015. Her office determined that structures under 120 square feet are exempt from most building code requirements. They could be built quickly and without complex permits. Tiny homes are a vast improvement over tents and tent cities. The institute now operates 16 tiny home villages in the Puget Sound region.

“They are a transitional housing option,” Lee said. “Most residents typically stay about three weeks before we’re able to place them in more stable housing.”

I asked Lee about my friend Amelia. Since she’s not Puyallup, she’s not eligible for their tiny home village, but Lee told me there are two other villages in Tacoma. She would have someone from the institute go out with me to talk with Amelia about her options. I was ecstatic.

Amelia Disappears

The next day, I went to Amelia’s camp to tell her the good news. As I approached, I saw three city workers loading her belongings into a dump truck. I ran up to them and asked what happened to the woman who was living there.

“She got into a hotel,” one worker told me.

The city of Tacoma, the city of Lakewood, and Pierce County had assisted the Low Income Housing Institute in purchasing the Comfort Inn located just south of Tacoma in Lakewood and converting it into a homeless shelter. The outreach people came and offered Amelia housing there, and this time, she accepted.

“I guess because the weather is getting cold, or who knows why, but she finally accepted help,” the worker said.

As I walked home, I felt happy but also empty. Did all my concern for her do any good? She wound up getting help all on her own. Did I make any difference?

I know not all homeless people are like Amelia. Many different paths lead to homelessness. But from a Native perspective, the ultimate cause of homelessness is our spiritual break with the land.

The modern world commodifies every aspect of our lives, requiring most of us to sell our labor to survive. If we are forced by circumstance to live outside this economic system, we are banished to the streets.

Once, love and kinship held together the Indigenous people of what is now Tacoma. They did not control the land with money. They were the land. That’s what Indigenous means. Balance was of utmost importance. And the sight of a confused young woman living outside in squalor is something they would have tried to set right instead of complaining about it.

I remembered the smoked salmon. Amelia made a point on several occasions to tell me how much she liked it. That always made me feel good. The salmon was caught, smoked, and canned by Indigenous people, people of the land, and it made a big impression on her.

I’ll never know if she was reunited with her children. But I do know I treated her with honor and respect. I fed her Native food and cared about her problems. Maybe that eased some of the crisis from her mind. I realized I was not her rescuer. I was her friend. That was enough.


FRANK HOPPER , Tlingit, is a freelance Native journalist born in Juneau, Alaska, now living in Tacoma, Washington. His work appears in Last Real Indians, The Stranger, and Indian Country Today. His self-titled YouTube channel features videos about Native issues. He can be reached at [email protected] His YouTube link is https://youtube.com/c/FrankHopper1

ERIC TEGETHOFF is a journalist covering the Northwest. Eric has worked as a reporter for KBOO, XRAY FM, and Oregon Public Broadcasting in Portland, Oregon, as well as other print and digital news media. In 2012, Eric traveled to North Dakota to write about the Bakken region oil boom. He’s also worked at a movie theater, as a campaign canvasser and quality assurance at a milk packaging factory. Eric is originally from Orlando, Florida. He graduated from the University of Florida in 2010.

Broadcast version by Eric Tegethoff for Washington News Service reporting for the YES! Media/Public News Service Collaboration. Frank Hopper wrote this article for YES! Magazine.
This article was republished with permission. The Auburn Examiner has not independently verified its content. 

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2 Comments

  1. Rebecca Dare Rebecca Dare January 22, 2022

    Thank you for that recounting, and perspective! It is so difficult to know what to do, how to help. But just connecting with another person – whose circumstances are unknown or difficult to know – is important whether it changes anything or not.

  2. Known as "JJ" {Sarah Rosal} Known as "JJ" {Sarah Rosal} March 31, 2022

    Today this story touched me while it broke me. It went past touching me, Breaking Me, impacting me, Awakening me… And to tell the truth it was because of all the time and work that God has put into me over the last four years, but especially the last two. What it did was convicted me. Which I’ve only ever admitted such a thing twice in my life prior to this specific moment. I wish there was a way to make this make sense, or be heard or understood for actually what it is. Last night I was exhausted, Beyond exhaustion, and so I spent most of the day in and out of sleep. I woke up completely an hour ago and I knew full well that I just left the presence of God. Who is my constant companion and friend and who has not left my side ever Commodore have many times left his. When I was 9 years old I had an experience, for a very long time I didn’t realize what exactly it was that it happened. When I did understand and recognize it for what it was I actually exactly like a human does. I tried everything in my power to minimize it, ignore it, diminish it, or even the very worst to generalize it. I tried to run from it, I tried to embrace it in my own ways instead of whether it’s when I’m telling or when I’ve allowed the way he told me to, I tried to forget it, I try to make an excuse for my inactivity or inability but as I woke up this evening he made it clear to me that all these things were lies. A lie is a lie, whether it’s one I allow, or whether it’s one I expect or accept, or just one that I tell. He has Faithfully sent so many over my lifetime to protect me, to stop me, to capture me, to redirect me, to encourage me, to remind me, to ignite me… I’m aware of them all. This article was the 4th that I read today, the first was about the significant increase in death for those that are homeless, the second one was in regards to more successful efforts going forth to address this homeless issue, by treating those within it as individuals, the Third was informational as in what the state has allotted for the overall issue and what is believed to be the more positive, and effective forecast models to address the issues. And then this one. I could feel the heart of the individual who wrote this, I can feel the vast empty space of all those things not answered or not known, I can also see past all of this and through all of this the devastation of exactly what happened upon the day that Amelia went into this hotel. I literally felt like someone ripped my heart out and I believe that the author of this story actually knows this inherently intuitively deep inside themselves. So I’m just going to put words to it, because it’s no longer about Amelia specifically, nor is it a statement that even resonates as a fact over Amelia specific scenario, I felt that Devastation and the impact the minute the story said he arrived to see them pack up a camp and say this person, this woman had gone to a hotel. I can feel in between these lines the true intention, the heart of the person who reached out, I can feel the effort to fill the gap of space left in all the Unknowing, I can feel the prayer spoken over this woman as he mused it see me after all that Amelia had found help all on her own, I can feel the lightning of this burden upon the shoulders and the one who set out to see, reach and impact not just this one individual but each of them, as he acknowledged he was not The Rescuer, the solution and acknowledge his place and his role by saying he was just her friend and perhaps that was enough. I assure you it is and it was, and I heard you and so did God. The words that were not spoken are devastating I truly hope that they can be received and heard for exactly what they are, so before I speak them and speak the truth, I’m going to ask God to send forth the Heavenly Host to bless the truth, to tear down the lies we continue to accept, and to lift this Haze of a necessary fog from each and every person it’s meant to, and silence this noise of need and the rhetoric of the righteous so that the truth and once again me hurt for this moment for this day to build up in the places where we have a breakdown. The deception of this moment, when we see Amelia take the hotel and we hope all is well is actually screaming to each of us, and We Know Who We Are, only one thing no matter how we try to dress it up, excuse it, or process it in order to come to terms with it… And that is this: this was the exact time and day that Amelia, that she gave up all hope. Because this forecast model and all these attempts to fix and solve this looming issue that has taken a Forefront upon the table in front of each of us, collectively and individually not just within our Nation but throughout the world, is false and will never find Total success and with every successful story or effort I feel the darkness as it begins to shroud every single place that there was once light, as it slowly begins to put the rest of the world to sleep. There’s only one way to address this issue and every single issue that is on the Forefront of every single table of all of humanity. It matters not what the issues appear to be, or how we recognize them, or how obvious the issue is, overwhelming or underwhelming, it doesn’t matter what that moment looks like for each of us. As I have journeyed through this life I have found that the terrifying devastation of emptiness, Los, and death come equally identifiable and everything we see and know as well as everything and we cannot see, where all we can see is something is missing. We obviously address and acknowledge the things that we see before us especially if they’re causing a problem or discomfort for each of us, but it is the things that are not obvious, not spoken, not easily seen that are being overlooked or hidden behind a veil put before us by all the powers that be but here’s where it hurts it’s also Avail we put before ourselves because we didn’t want to see. Because it was too much and too hard and too heavy to carry it was overwhelming. And this is something that I believe and I know was orchestrated specifically by God our creator. I know that God actually orchestrated himself that he would utilize this Devastation, this pain this confusion and this loss for good for his purpose so I would read it, along with many others perhaps, in addition to his intention being that whoever is able to hear and receive what I’m writing now all together for a greater purpose to wake me up wake us up. The truth is I’ve been awake for a long time and so have many of you but I know when I was 9 years old God told me exactly what I was going to be here to do and I ran like hell but I know that one thing matters today with all of the things that we know what are we doing with those things yes.. every single thing in our life and our world today comes down to one thing only there is no fixed there is no solution other than God all these things are meant to drop this back to God the devastating truth of the reason there are so many homeless is because they have a lack of a place to belong and Where We Belong you can. Only God can provide the solution only God has the forecast model. I know for a fact that God told me the schematic and gave me the blueprint model to address this and I’ve been terrified of it I’ve been overwhelmed by it and I’ve come to the point where I’m almost drowning in the midst of it I woke up from being impacted and disciplined by God over this night I feel like I just had an argument with him like Moses saying I’m not the one I’m not the one I’m too broken I’m too lost I can’t make a difference and he said they’re telling me repeatedly know you’re perfect you’re perfectly broken you’re broken like I ordered a order for that to happen in order for this day to happen and then in frustration he let me wake up and read this story and realized the domino effect the each one of us has one another. I thank you for writing this story. Thank you for your heart. Thank you for being obedient even if you didn’t know you were bi. Thank you for being the kick in the pants that I needed today. I think it’s pretty much the equivalent of bad thing who gave you that voice who gave you that now who gave you the power to speak. Well he did as a matter of fact and I know that he said he would take our moments of weakness and then he would be strong he said he would take the foolishness of this world the small things of this world and each of those ridiculous moments because those were the exact moments thank God was about to you a miracle and astound those who think they are wise. I know that God said there will be Victory here. He said he will have order. He said he was going to do something no one ever imagined. And I believe this article today was one of the last necessary efforts that were needed to ignite something beyond our comprehension… I am no one of note, I represent a heap on the very throne room floor of Gods, I am one of the least of these, I too living Street, but today got showed up as he has many times before, but today it was different I don’t even have the words to possibly convey the amount of lines the all of the time of my life come to this specific moment right now where I can only say I’m awestruck. I feel very much like that cousin has her must have felt the day he woke up from being out to pasture for 7 years or 10 whatever it was, or he just walked in and said God is good all the time he’s always just. This was just that story oh, the one that I needed oh, I just didn’t know it. It’s the one that woke me up. Because of what you didn’t write but what I believe that you felt… There’s something out of order here oh, there’s something wrong with these efforts the house everyone in hotels and to move everyone here and there there’s something wrong with this. It’s a blanket and it’s not covering the whole thing. There’s a truth here that needs to be spoken but no one is saying perhaps because we live in a day and age where it’s offensive to be offended. I read about the native efforts and beliefs of holistic healing and I know they are not far off and in fact are more on track than anyone else. I’m also native as well as homeless. I know that the Native American ways are not something that are respected or revered for what they are outside of our heritage and sometimes they aren’t even within it not for the power that they hold. And the world can say that they respected but they don’t oftentimes and even if they do it means nothing if they don’t understand it. I know that God will take the broken things of this world and he will make things complete correct and whole. We are not about to have a revolution, although we may have one it won’t be one from God even though many will say it is. We are about to have is a reservation, his God Goes Forth to recapture those who he calls his children, to restore, to repurpose, to rebuild the path of Hope to him and him alone. Because I know that the children of God are not of this world anymore then he was of this world. And I know this because he told me and he wrote it in his word. There is nothing in this world that should have our Focus. God is Not political nor is he religious nor does he think the way we do at all ever. Which is not to say that God cannot use the things that we know and we believe in and we accepted truth to bring us back around it’s astounding actually if it’s God we’ll use our things to teach us his ways. Our homeless issues, our drug issues, our hopeless issues, our helpless issues, our heartless issues each one of them is meant to bring us back to God and some are actually meant to force us to acknowledge that there could be no other recourse or denial of the fact that there’s only one way to fix any problem today. It is in Him alone, through each of His own, who bare His heart, the heart of a servant, moved by compassion. He will again draw a line in the sand, he will make a distinction. This is going to force each of us have to make a very distinct stand. Are we citizens of Heaven, residing within Humanity? Or are we Citizens of Humanity hoping somehow to reside Within the Heavenly realms? In order to be a a citizen of heavenly realms as well as a resident of heavenly realms we must release our allegiance to Humanity’s Thrones. I know that God said he scriptures for better before we even knew he existed. I have no idea what the author of the stories beliefs are but I’m here to say thank you for being obedient and open to be used as a vessel. I know God saw you today and he took the one thing you did oh, because it was more than anybody else oh, because you were there and you smoke it and you wrote it and I know that he put his math skills to work on it and the impact of it will go I’m right here in ripples gaining strength to create a wave the typhoon of Truth oh, you’re a question of if you had done enough if you were enough his answer to you is yes yes and that was perfect. So like the fish and the bread to feed the multitude here we come each of us. It’s time. I speak blessings over you and I speak peace.

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