Nonprofit groups build housing coalition

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

CHINLE, AZ., February 2, 2012

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Frustrated by what they see as a lack of government response to the dearth of decent housing on the Navajo Nation, a group of 22 nonprofit leaders and concerned citizens met here Saturday and established a coalition to address the problem.

Diné bi Siihasin (Diné Hope) will be an umbrella organization for nonprofit organizations interested in improving the housing and infrastructure situation on the reservation.

Nelson Toledo of Eastern Agency-based community development nonprofit Dzilth-Nageezi was named president, with Edmund Ray of Shiprock Community Development Corp. vice president and Patricia Ray, also of SCDC, secretary-treasurer.

Representatives of five nonprofits present at the meeting - Shiprock Home for Women and Children, Indigenous Community Enterprises, Dzilth-Nageezi and Forgotten People - pledged to take the matter to their own boards to try to persuade them to become part of the new group, and the new officers were tasked with tracking down other relevant nonprofits throughout the reservation and inviting them to join.

Johnny Martin of the Department of Navajo Veterans Affairs said he was confident veterans' organizations would support the new movement as well, and asked to be kept in the loop.

The meeting was organized by Albuquerque attorney James W. Zion, who has battled Navajo government entities in court on behalf of the Shiprock Home for Women and Children, Indigenous Community Enterprises, the Forgotten People, and Navajo Housing Authority clients in Shiprock.

"The purpose of the meeting is to consider the need and utility of a new comprehensive housing plan for the Navajo Nation to more fully implement the congressional intent of NAHASDA (the Native American Housing and Self-Determination Act) and to end the current failed plan," Zion wrote in an invitation to the event.

After listening to a litany of housing and infrastructure complaints from individuals, including three "Forgotten People" from Big Mountain, the discussion first turned towards urging the Navajo Nation Council to reform its housing code to better address the enormous need.

But several in the room thought that strategy would be about as useful as banging their heads against the wall.

"To correct this thing, with the current politics, I just don't see it happening," said Duane "Chili" Yazzie, chairman of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission. "They just don't have the compassion."

"You guys want to polish the code, make it shiny and put a happy face on it," charged Al Henderson, vice president of the home-building nonprofit ICE. "You will never get to meet the basic decency requirements with a code."

Agreed Edmund Ray, "The only way you will get a well-heated house, with water running to it, well insulated, you have to have a slot machine in it."

David Tsosie, a member of the Southwest Coalition of Spiritual Guardians, suggested circumventing government altogether and creating a coalition of the 25 or so nonprofits on the Navajo Nation concerned with housing issues, a suggestion that generated enthusiasm from everyone in the room.

Tsosie also came up with the name "Diné bi Siihasin," "since what we're really looking for is hope."

"If we take stewardship and ownership, that's going to say, 'NHA wake up or you're going to lose it,'" affirmed Edmund Ray.

Taking the nonprofit tack, commented Zion, could free up the organization to go in some directions government has been slow to embrace: individual solar panels, green construction and scattered-site housing, to name a few.

"The Forgotten People can be our poster child, if you will," the attorney suggested, referring to the people who resisted relocation during the Navajo-Hopi Land Dispute and were left to live under deplorable conditions.

NHA spokeswoman Roberta Roberts said Monday that, as far as she was aware, NHA was not invited to the meeting and she had not heard about the new coalition.

"I'm sure it would entail some areas of partnership that we could look at," she said.

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