Cheyanne Wright at the apartment building where she lives with her two children in Lakeport, California, on May 14, 2021. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)
Cheyanne Wright felt stuck.
The 23-year-old was renting a room from her boyfriend’s mother in Stockton. Her relationship with the woman had soured during the coronavirus pandemic after an argument exploded over using the kitchen. Things became so tense that Wright no longer felt safe leaving the room she shared with her boyfriend and her 4-year-old son. Space got even tighter after she gave birth to their son, Romeo.
“It just wasn’t working and it was really stressful,” Wright said. “I just tried to stay positive as much as possible, because [kids] can feel your stress and when you’re unhappy.”
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Wright had lost her job as a resident assistant at an elder care home in early 2020. She was desperate for a better housing situation, but all the rentals she found were over $1,200 a month, which was out of her reach.
“And when you have a family, it makes it really, really hard because you have to buy the food. You have to buy their clothes or diapers,” she said.
Wright grew up in the Mendocino County city of Ukiah, three hours from Stockton. She longed to return to rural Northern California to be closer to the redwood trees, the mountains — and to her tribe.
Wright is Native American and an enrolled tribal member of the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians, and thought they might be able to help her find a new job and a pediatrician for her newborn. She reached out to her cousin, Joshua Ray, who is a social worker with the tribe, to see if he knew of any rooms opening up in the area.
Ray said he had something better: Her own two-bedroom apartment in Lakeport — across the street from Clear Lake — where the Scotts Valley tribe is headquartered. And at $450 a month, the rent was something she could afford.
“I just felt blessed,” she said. “It really saved us.”
When Wright moved in mid-February, she was one of the first residents at the 10-unit apartment complex. The goal is to eventually rent out all the units to tribal members who are currently homeless or at risk of losing their housing. The tribe estimates that about 33 of its 302 enrolled members fit into this category.
From the second-floor deck of one of the units, you can see the edge of Clear Lake, once a rich resource for Pomo people to fish and hunt game. Tall tule reeds growing along the water’s edge were used to make baskets, boats and even entire homes.
The small apartment building, which the tribe just this week named the Sugar Bowl Apartments, was purchased and remodeled using funding from Homekey, a statewide effort to quickly convert existing properties into temporary or permanent housing. Since launching in June 2020, the program has created nearly 6,000 new units statewide for people experiencing homelessness.
The Lake County project is one of three awarded to Northern California tribes during Homekey’s first year of funding. In Sonoma County, the Kashia Band of Pomo Indians are converting a Santa Rosa motel into 19 apartments for people who are chronically homeless. And in Humboldt County, the Yurok Tribe was awarded $2.2 million to purchase a Eureka motel and turn it into 18 units of permanent supportive housing.
Ray oversees the management and renovation of the Lakeport complex. The units were run-down when the building was purchased last year, he says, and have since been renovated with a fresh coat of paint, laminate wood flooring, a new roof and new appliances — including air conditioning. He hopes the complex will become a small modern-day village, with Native people lifting each other up.
“The goal is for me to help you become better than you were when you moved in here. To get you a better job. You're going to be saving money,” he said, money that could go toward a down payment.
For American Indians living on reservation land, homelessness often translates into overcrowding. A 2017 U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report found 16% of tribal households were considered overcrowded, compared with only 2% of households nationwide. Without enough affordable, safe housing, two or three families sometimes live under one roof — like Wright did in Stockton — often a last resort before falling into street homelessness or staying at a shelter.
In Lake County, Native Americans make up about 4% of the general population, but account for over 22% of the homeless population, according to the county’s 2021 point-in-time homeless count.
“We don't have a big tribe, but we do have a tribe that doesn't have housing,” said Ray.
They’re also a tribe that doesn’t have land, he adds, which further exacerbates their housing challenges.
No Land, No Home
The story of how the Scotts Valley Band of Pomo Indians lost their land is rooted in our country’s origin story. It’s a history of disenfranchisement, relocation and assimilation forged by European settlers and the federal government, with the goal of eliminating tribes and erasing native culture.
But two government policies, in particular, were most harmful to Ray’s tribe: the termination of tribal status and the voluntary relocation of Native people off their reservation and into urban cities.
For centuries, the Scotts Valley tribe roamed from the mountains surrounding Clear Lake to the Pacific coast and down to San Pablo Bay. After a series of false promises and broken treaties, the federal government, in 1911, purchased a 56-acre parcel of land near Lakeport for the tribe to live on. But the Sugar Bowl Rancheria, as it was named, lacked water and basic utilities.
The tribe then lost that land in 1965, when the government terminated its tribal status, along with that of over 100 other tribes.
Around the same time, government relocation programs ushered Native people to cities, promising good housing and steady jobs. But that didn’t always happen, and some people disappeared into poverty or homelessness.
As a result of these programs, about 70% of Scotts Valley tribal members had relocated to the Bay Area by the 1970s. After a years-long court battle, the tribe had their status restored in 1992, but their homeland was never replaced.
“It’s very challenging because we don't have a place to call home,” said Patricia Franklin, a Scotts Valley tribal member.
Because Scotts Valley is a landless tribe, its members are spread out across Alameda, Contra Costa, Lake, Mendocino and Sonoma counties. Many members live about two hours away from the tribe’s offices in Lakeport, making it difficult to have centralized health and housing services and stay united as a community.
For Native people, being homeless takes on a whole different meaning when you consider the legacy of racism, colonialism and land theft, says Colleen Echohawk, founder of the National Coalition to End Urban Indigenous Homelessness.
“You can trace it back to the very first moments of colonization in this country,” she said, noting that there were no Native homeless people before Europeans arrived in 1492.
“The folks that were coming into the West were like, ‘Hey, we want this land,’ ” she said. “And they moved us all into reservations.”
The arrival of European settlers brought diseases, forced assimilation and violent massacres of Native communities. Echohawk says many Native people today are still traumatized and distrustful of government involvement.
“We've worked with elders who for years stuck outside, slept in tents, but did not want to go anywhere near a shelter. That’s because it triggered the trauma of boarding schools, those institutionalized systems that harmed them,” she said, referring to the Indian boarding schools that many Native children were sent to as part of the government’s drive to forcibly assimilate them.
Off Highway 20 near Lakeport, a dirt road leads to another site of loss and violence specific to the Pomo people — a small hill past a large grassy field. It’s what remains of Bonopoti, an island where U.S. soldiers in 1850 killed nearly every man, woman and child — in what came to be known as Bloody Island. Every year, on May 15, the tribe holds a sunrise ceremony at the site to remember the lives lost.
“It's something that occurred to our people,” said Scotts Valley tribal member Jesse Gonzalez. “That, you know, our people never forgot.”
Breaking the Cycle
A growing body of research has found that historical trauma in Native communities can be passed down through generations. Today, many Scotts Valley tribal members are plagued by poverty, depression and substance abuse, says Gabriel Ray, Joshua Ray’s uncle, who sits on the Scotts Valley tribal council. More than half of the tribe’s members are currently unemployed, he notes.
“A lot of our members don't even realize that their life has been so affected by historical trauma,” Gabriel Ray said.
Tribal member Patricia Franklin, Gabriel Ray’s sister, knows this firsthand. She grew up poor and was homeless most of her childhood. She, Ray and their other siblings would sleep in their car near Hopland or camp along the banks of Lake Mendocino, sometimes even during the winter.
“You start to think, this is normal,” she said. “But your normal is totally different than the rest of the world’s normal.”
Because they moved around a lot and didn’t have stable housing, Franklin and her siblings would often miss school for months at a time. She taught herself to read when she was 7 by sounding out the words she saw in her mom’s magazines. It wasn’t until she was an adult that she went back to school to learn math and how to write, eventually earning her GED.
“We were just surviving,” Franklin said.
Franklin has had her own struggles with alcohol and methamphetamine addiction, and experienced homelessness again as an adult, staying at a local shelter on and off with her kids. She eventually got sober after reconnecting with her faith and her tribe, and she was later elected to the council.
In 2008, the Scotts Valley tribe received a $600,000 federal housing grant to help six families with their down payments. Franklin was one of the recipients, allowing her to buy a home in Ukiah, where she still lives with her husband Dino and their children.
Having a home has helped her heal, she says, and allowed her to reconnect with her culture and identity. She’s started to dance again and is part of a group of Pomo weavers who are trying to revive traditional basket weaving.
“It's a tough thing when you don't have a place to call home and lay your head. And I finally do at my house,” she said. “But I want my tribe to have a home, too.”
The Lakeport apartments purchased under the Homekey program mark the most significant action to date the Scotts Valley tribe has taken to house its own members.
“We understand our own people,” said Franklin. “We always try to help. And so now we're going to be able to.”
There are a few other Native-led housing projects around the country, including several in Minnesota. In Seattle, Colleen Echohawk, the housing activist, spearheaded one that’s set to open in the fall. She says the 80-unit project will be decorated with Indigenous art, include a Native health care clinic, and offer housing and employment assistance.
She hopes that it shows other Native organizations that culturally specific housing is possible.
“When we build our own housing, when we own our own housing, when we run our own housing, we're continuing to message that we are healing, that we are resilient,” Echohawk said.
The apartment complex in Lakeport is just part of the Scotts Valley tribe’s greater housing vision. That includes a safe house, alcohol and substance rehabilitation, and a plot of land where the tribe could one day build its own community with housing for families and elders. But to reach that goal, it will need more funding and more land, which is likely years in the making.
Camille Miller is on a waiting list to move into the Lakeport apartment site. She lost her job and her partner during the pandemic, and has since drained her savings to make the rent. She says getting into one of the apartments will help her get back on her feet, adding that the prospect of living among other Native people puts her at ease.
“My roots are here,” she said. “This is where we belong.”