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Native Americans, Homelessness, & Substance Abuse

When it comes to homelessness, the Native American population is overrepresented in this area. Though a minority group within America, it has been estimated that they make up 8 percent of the homeless population.

The main factors leading to this situation are mistrust towards government agencies, overcrowding, lack of housing on reservations, and a feeling of isolation from both general society and one’s own tribe. Additionally, childhood trauma, poverty, foster care interventions, and family separation can also lead to intergenerational housing issues. 

Substance abuse, though not a major contributor to homeless issues amongst the Native American community, also plays a factor in the situation. 

Native American Definition Of Homelessness 

When one hears the term “homeless”, it conjures up the idea of having no roof over one’s head. That is, you have nowhere to stay, so the streets or a charity-run shelter are the only options you have. 

Yet, for Native Americans, the concept of being homeless extends further and encompasses their tribal reservation. Urbanization has seen an exodus from the reservation in order to find employment or perhaps seek a better standard of living. Yet, this migration to towns and cities has resulted in a disconnect from the tribal community.

When one does return to their reservation or tribal land, they can find a lack of acceptance from those who are residing there (a third of the Native Indian population still live rurally on reservations). That results in feelings of isolation and “homelessness”. 

Barriers To Housing

For Native Americans seeking a home, there is a myriad of barriers that contribute to feelings of frustration and helplessness. These may cause individuals to not even try to find a place to live After all, why bother when you can assume the end result?


Native Americans are disproportionately represented in poverty statistics. The major contributors to the situation are low income, unemployment, and limited education. That means that affordable housing is an elusive goal for many within this population to reach. 

Distrust In Government Agencies 

Colonialization has seen Native Americans lose their lands, cultural and spiritual beliefs banned, and their language suppressed. Additionally, there has been forced assimilation into the colonial way of life. 

Such historical abuses have resulted in the indigenous peoples of America exhibiting a lack of trust in government agencies. That means that when assistance may be readily available, only a few Native Americans may take advantage of it. 


Some institutions can display prejudice towards Native American applicants. That makes it harder for Native Americans to get approvals for home loans. Also, the fact that this population is overrepresented in most statistics (such as unemployment and incarceration rates), means that even having the opportunity to get government-subsidized housing can be a tremendous challenge.

Lack Of Government Housing

When it comes to moving into a government-provided house, the waiting time for Native Americans is 41 months, which is two times longer than that of White Americans. With the Native American population growing, there is increased competition for a declining number of houses, a majority of these dwellings are of sub-standard quality.


Native American hospitality extends towards immediate family. However, there has been a change in this cultural trend. Now it’s not unusual to see more than one family share a house due to lack of housing. Overcrowding can cause the housing provider to terminate the lease due to additional people residing in the house longer than agreed to. Also, applications for housing may be declined for fear of Native Americans inviting an excess number of individuals to reside in the house. Additionally, there is the possibility that children are harmed, abused, or exposed to substance use from relatives or others living in the home. 

What Role Does Substance Abuse Play In Native American Homelessness? 

As mentioned, overcrowding in a house can cause children to witness substance abuse within the home environment. When one grows up in an environment in which alcohol and drugs are used by extended family members (or others) as a coping mechanism, then it can be seen as acceptable behavior. That means substance abuse can become an intergenerational issue. 

Children may even be provided with alcohol, tobacco, or other substances if they ask for them. That leads to early addiction issues with the younger members in the house and may lead to homelessness for them later in life. 

Alcoholism is the major issue among Native American veterans who are homeless. The causes of this addiction are frustration with trying to get help from agencies, traumatic military experiences, and a feeling of isolation and non-acceptance by civilian society.

Offering Hope To The Homeless

Many organizations are dedicated to helping the homeless Native American community. Addiction recovery treatment centers are also coming to the rescue. By providing services and advice that is culturally sensitive, as well as reaching out to the Native American homeless population, these organizations are doing their best with limited resources. 

The main frustration faced by all in trying to resolve this issue is a limited awareness by Native Americans regarding what assistance is available. Also, lack of transportation from the tribal reservation means that it is difficult to get help if traveling is needed. Breaking down the walls of prejudice against the Native American population is another issue that needs to be tackled.

Addressing the problem of homelessness always requires empathy and compassion as well as a government that is fully committed to resolving the situation. The Native American community is always overrepresented in the wrong statistics, and homelessness is one of them.

Offering housing support that addresses historical wrongs as well as being sensitive to the cultural and spiritual needs of Native Americans is a huge step in the right direction.

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