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New Mexico lawmaker says homelessness responses lack Native American perspectives

Taufiq Klinkenborg

Homelessness in New Mexico has risen 48 percent according to a 2023 preliminary report by the Legislative Finance Committee. And while Native Americans made up 11% of the state’s population in 2021 they represented 17% of people experiencing homelessness. Democratic State Representative Derrick Lente of Sandia Pueblo highlighted these disparities during a recent LFC committee hearing. He said this is an on-going issue on both urban and Native lands.

DERRICK LENTE: It was obvious to me that we were largely in part not even considered when these discussions or these formulations of a plan forward were being made. And so I had to make mention that now as a member of the Legislative Finance Committee, actually the first Native American to be a voting member of that committee, that we have to be able to provide a perspective and I had to bring that up, because I did not hear one thing about homelessness in Native American New Mexico, which is still a huge issue, but it's not ever talked about by our communities.

KUNM: How big of an issue is homelessness in Native communities?

LENTE: Homelessness is very prevalent on tribal lands, it's very much one that we don't talk about, because again, we don't have our people here on tribal lands living in tents or tent cities or going hungry because we will always feed them, cloth them, or put a roof over their head. That's just who we are as Native people. And so if there's money to be involved and there are resources, I want to make sure that that Native America New Mexico, both in the urban and in the tribal settings, respectively, have access to that so that we can create our own success stories and our own resolutions.

KUNM: Why do Native Americans experience homelessness and who’s accountable for them?

LENTE: When there's a homeless person in Albuquerque, is it their enrolled tribe's responsibility to alert the people, whether it's the federal government, state government, local governments as to their being missing or perhaps homeless? Is it the city's responsibility to be able to account for the homelessness population and be able to reach out then to those tribal governments? There's a lot of different questions to be asked and I really don't think that there's a handle on how to start this.

KUNM:  For Native Americans that are homeless that don't seek help, do you think there's a lack of trust that stems from generational trauma of working with US authorities?

LENTE: Oh, absolutely. I think it's a huge problem. Either they're going to be of the opinion that they're gonna get in trouble or they have warrants or whatever it might be. We know that there are some great opportunities out there for support systems for our Native American communities that are in urban settings. I think many of them are just weary of seeking that help. And in many cases, there's issues of drug abuse, alcohol abuse, mental instability, that we have to account for as well. And so we just can't allow ourselves to leave our own out there on the streets to fend for themselves when they're battling their own issues as well.

KUNM: You mentioned how Native American people, they  take care of each other. And there's that sort of care for each other. Do you think there needs to be more of that when it comes to, you know, Albuquerque, other cities, the state of New Mexico, making Native Americans a priority in regard to helping them get out of homelessness?

LENTE: I think Native American populations should not be excluded when we talk about homelessness we have three citizenships. We're obviously citizens of the United States of America, state citizens and tribal citizens. So we should not be excluded from the conversation. So that's why I made it a point to speak up to ask ‘what is the path forward?’ and to be quite honest with you is that I was not satisfied with the answer. It still was very much a very Anglo-centric lens that people were looking through in response to how they were going to attempt to involve Native Americans in their solutions. And so it's going to take a lot more work to make sure that we are a part of the solutions and a part of the answers for our people.

KUNM: Do you feel that there is a risk for Native Americans, a potential danger that are living on the streets right now? I mean, I don't know if you remember, in 2015, two individuals killed a Native American homeless person, just because they were bored, that was a comment they made. 

LENTE: It's hard for me to put myself in their shoes, because I don't know what they're going through. So when Native Americans are on the streets I think they're all in danger of certain aspects of living on the streets. In some cases, people have treated each of us in some circumstances as being Native American. And I think there's just a stigma related to it, that people see us, and they may want to bully us or say something about us or our ways of life. And I think those that are living on the sheets, may probably receive that type of treatment as well, but maybe at a greater level. And so I think that everyone is at risk when we're talking about homelessness, but when we talk about Native American homelessness, you know, obviously, the race becomes an issue because now, you know, do they want to go and beat up unfortunately, in many cases, as it's mentioned, the drunk Indian, just because they're drunk Indian, that's not okay.

KUNM: What more needs to be done to help Native Americans get off the streets?

LENTE: I think there's a lot of measures that can be done but a lot of it has to do with understanding statistics, doing the legwork to have an accounting for them. And then obviously, the resources identified specifically for Native American populations to ensure that we are not being left out of this grand solution to attack the issue of homelessness in our state, that we have to make sure that we're again at the table and that our people are accounted for and are safe and will receive the help that they absolutely need.

Support for this coverage comes from the Thornburg Foundation and KUNM listeners like you.

Jeanette DeDios is from the Jicarilla Apache and Diné Nations and grew up in Albuquerque, NM. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2022 where she earned a bachelor’s degree in Multimedia Journalism, English and Film. She’s a former Local News Fund Fellow. Jeanette can be contacted at jeanettededios@kunm.org or via Twitter @JeanetteDeDios.
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