Native American Populations Have Grown Tremendously But Reservation Housing Stays Stagnant The two tribes on the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming are experiencing a population boom, but the amount of housing hasn't increased leading to severe overcrowding.

With Little Housing Growth, Native American Families Live In Close Quarters

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KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Many Native American reservations are experiencing a baby boom, and thanks to better health care, elders are living longer. But housing has not kept pace, and that has led to overcrowding. As Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards reports, it's a problem for the Northern Arapaho on the Wind River Indian Reservation.

MELODIE EDWARDS, BYLINE: Northern Arapaho elder Kenneth Shakespeare raised seven children in this house with its view of mountains and hayfields. But now he has dementia, and it's his kids' turn to take care of him. His daughter Lynell gives me a tour of the four-bedroom two-bath home she grew up in.

LYNELL SHAKESPEARE: Yeah, so that's this room. This is his.

EDWARDS: Over here, and then is there somebody's...

SHAKESPEARE: My sister will stay every now and then and that's where she sleeps with her grandkids.

EDWARDS: Plus, three of her adult children live here with their own families. To be clear, at any given time, between 10 and 13 people live with Kenneth Shakespeare.

TAYA DIXEY: I sleep in with my mom and dad where they’re in that room with that bunk bed and stuff.

EDWARDS: That's Lynell's 8-year-old granddaughter, Taya Dixey. Lynell says it would be nice if Taya's family could move into a trailer now sitting on the property but says that means paying $6,000 to install electricity, money they don't have. One of her daughters is on the waiting list for low-cost tribal housing but has been waiting for two years. Lynell says, anyway, the family prefers to live together and take care of their elder.

SHAKESPEARE: We don't want to go to housing. We can stack up here.

PATRICK GOGGLES: That's not uncommon. We find that a cultural value that enhances our family life.

EDWARDS: That's Northern Arapaho Tribal Housing Director Patrick Goggles. He says a high birth rate has led to a population explosion, and that traditional lifestyle is now strained. He says the tribe has 11,000 people, but if they want to stay with family on the reservation, they have to cram into one of only 230 homes.

GOGGLES: In the business I'm in, you never have all the funds or resources you need.

EDWARDS: Goggles says they need to build 600 more, and he says he has to use the funds he has just to keep that limited housing livable.

Heidi Frechette works for the Housing and Urban Development's Native American Program. She says Congress hasn't made sure funding has kept up with inflation over the years or with growing tribes.

HEIDI FRECHETTE: We're finding that folks are using more and more of their funds to rehab or repair existing homes and have less buying power and ability to construct new homes.

EDWARDS: Over 55 percent of the Northern Arapaho tribe can now be categorized as homeless because they're couch surfing. Tribal administrator Vonda Wells says that kind of overcrowding hurts families.

VONDA WELLS: People get stressed and they - things happen. They start, you know - violence happens.

EDWARDS: And she says with more domestic violence comes chronic illness, diabetes, heart disease, depression, and she says it's especially hard on kids. She tells of one boy she knows who sleeps on a bench.

WELLS: Your body is sore and then sending this child to school and then him, you know, trying to learn, trying to think about what his teacher's telling him. And he's exhausted.

EDWARDS: So tribal leaders have been brainstorming ways to eliminate overcrowding without giving up on multigenerational living - homes to accommodate extended families with lots of bedrooms and bathrooms and big living rooms for hosting ceremonies. For the Shakespeare family, a roomy kitchen would be great today.

SHAKESPEARE: Oh, is this the elk meat, Jojo?

EDWARDS: The family has gathered to cut and dry an elk they got on a recent hunting trip. They say until more homes are built, they'll keep living a traditional lifestyle even if it is crowded. For NPR News, I'm Melodie Edwards on Wyoming's Wind River Reservation.

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