It’s nearing 5 o’clock in the afternoon and the end of a long workday when Michelle Pederson sits down in front of a long, oak table in the historic YWCA building on West Second Street. As her teal scarf falls against the polished table, Pederson looks through her bronze-rimmed glasses at the room’s light blue walls, adorned with colorful, framed photographs of Natives in traditional dress.
“There are so many barriers that Native people experience on a daily basis,” Pederson said as she studies the photographs. “Sexual assault and housing issues have become ways of being discriminated against because you’re Native."
As her eyes move toward the windows that overlook a section of the Hillside neighborhood, Pederson realizes that she has become all too familiar with both of these issues. In fact, through the large, wooden doors behind her is a permanent supportive housing unit operated by the American Indian Community Housing Organization (AICHO), where she works as programs director.
Nearly five years ago, the now 20-year-old nonprofit AICHO started plans to renovate the old YWCA building, located at 202 West Second Street, and create both a housing unit and Duluth’s first American Indian Center. From the organization's inception, it has been working to reduce not only the issue of homelessness but also to address other major barriers faced by the local Native population.
“We’re finding that because of racism and systematic oppression, it’s harder for Natives to access certain things,” said Pederson, one of 22 staff members at AICHO. “So, we help offer supportive services for people that need help with things like looking for apartments or going to the county to apply for assistance. We’re always trying to enhance how the community responds to these issues.”
Identifying domestic violence locally
Formed in 1993 by a small group of Native women in Duluth, Pederson said that AICHO was initially created to address the community’s response to the high rate of domestic violence faced by Native women in the Northland.
“There was a woman who worked with what was then the Women’s Coalition, and she could see that there were differences in services provided to Native women in regards to domestic violence,” Pederson said. “[AICHO] has evolved over the years, but it started with that collective vision and has gathered momentum.”
Pederson said the main goal when AICHO began was to set up services for Native women that addressed domestic violence for them in different ways. This is when the Dabinoo’Igan shelter, which is a 10-bed shelter and one of AICHO’s four programs, was established in Duluth in order to provide protection for Native women who are fleeing domestic violence.
“We offer culturally specific programming that is the beginning of healing for many women,” said Patti Larsen, coordinator for the Dabinoo shelter. “It’s where they can walk their own walk and talk their own talk.”
Below, Pederson explains how Native Americans suffered a loss of identity after white settlers took features of their culture from them during colonization. For these reasons, AICHO's Dabinoo shelter seeks to recognize the specific cultures of the clients it serves.
The cultural programs that AICHO makes available to women in the Dabinoo shelter include a children’s program, art classes like beading, and an Ojibwe language circle. These events are held in AICHO’s American Indian Center, which is connected to the organization’s housing unit on West Second Street and is often opened up for community-wide events.
Seeing nearly 150 individuals amongst the four programs at AICHO, Larsen said the services provided at the Dabinoo shelter are extremely important because of the increasing rates of domestic violence among Native women. Mending the Sacred Hoop, a nonprofit on East Superior Street that AICHO works with closely, estimates that Native women are three and a half times more likely to be raped or sexually assaulted than women of other races.
“Our local numbers pretty much bear those statistics out,” said Holly Oden, information and resource specialist at Mending the Sacred Hoop. “Native women are also more likely to be assaulted by men of a different race, with the rates of violence against them being extremely high.”
Though Mending the Sacred Hoop, which started in the 1980s in conjunction with Duluth’s Domestic Abuse Intervention Programs (DAIP), does not provide direct services, the organization works with AICHO and other agencies to address domestic violence. They provide training and technical assistance to tribal organizations that receive funding to reduce domestic violence and also works with AICHO to implement solutions.
“Native women are at such a high risk of violence, and it’s not particular to tribal communities but is across the board,” Oden said. “The fact is that because they are Native women, they are more likely to be targeted by violence.”
This is supported by a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Justice and Bureau of Crime Statistics, which states that the violent crime rate among Native women is more than twice that of whites. Larsen said when AICHO started, the organization’s founders were seeing these same statistics, with a high rate of abuse against Natives by non-Natives.
Larsen added that Native children are three times more likely to be removed from their homes by social services than non-Natives and that AICHO sees this firsthand in the services provided to clients. She also said that, overall, mental health issues among Native women are high, which can be affected by domestic abuse and may also have an influence on family life.
“Native women are also less likely to report domestic violence,” Larsen said. “But none of these statistics are any good if we aren’t trying to do anything to change it. They are all goodhearted people and have just come to bad times.
“We just need to gain their trust and show that we are supporting them,” she added. “There’s such an idea that those who are in domestic violence are the foolish ones, but she’s not safe when she leaves the house. When he quits hitting, then women will be safe.”
As AICHO continues to address the high rates of domestic violence experienced by Native women through the Dabinoo shelter and its collaboration with other organizations, it also strives to address homelessness among the local Native population. To target this issue, AICHO operates three other programs aside from the Dabinoo shelter that work to get Natives into permanent, stable housing.
Advocating for housing among Natives
Within the city of Duluth, Natives represent only 3 percent of the population but make up nearly 30 percent of the homeless population, according to a study conducted by Wilder Research in 2006. Michelle LeBeau, interim executive director at AICHO, said that this study is what motivated AICHO, along with the Duluth American Indian Commission, to work together to develop a more extensive housing unit for Natives.
Wanting to establish an American Indian Center in Duluth where cultural events could take place, the commission began working with AICHO to get funding to purchase a building for the housing unit. After purchasing the historic YWCA building in 2008, LeBeau said that it took AICHO five years and about 8.4 million dollars to renovate the top three stories of the building into housing units.
“When we opened in 2012, we had 420 people on our waiting list, which shows how great the need is,” LeBeau said of the Gimaajii Mino Bimaadizimin shelter, which includes 29 units of permanent supportive housing and has a caretaker living on-site. “There’s a need for long-term housing, especially because kids who have been homeless for a long time have educational needs that need to be addressed."
Through its children’s program, computer lab, gymnasium, and American Indian Center, AICHO works to address these issues and not only provide housing, but also a place for Natives to take part in culturally specific activities. Recently purchasing Trepanier Hall, located right next door to AICHO, the organization plans to host more community events as well as incorporate a day care, health care services, and an art gallery within the agency.
Aside from the Gimaajii shelter, which includes one-, two-, and three-bedroom apartments as well as a large lobby and meeting room, AICHO also operates a transitional housing program and a scattered site supportive housing program. Because individuals must qualify for long-term homelessness to stay at the Gimaajii shelter, AICHO’s other shelters seek to provide different kinds of services.
Oshki Odaadiziwini Waaka’Igan, the transitional housing program, has been in operation since AICHO began and works with individuals for up to two years of housing. The scattered site housing program, called Giiwe, is a collaboration with Duluth’s Center City Housing, CHUM, and the Human Development Center.
“All of our shelters try to provide different resources and services,” LeBeau said. “But all of the shelters have in common the need for jobs. That’s a big barrier.”
A 2009 study by Wilder Research studied the homeless population of Duluth, interviewing 331 homeless individuals. The study found that 36 percent of homeless youth, 29 percent of homeless adults, and 33 percent of homeless families were American Indian.
AICHO collaborates with the Duluth American Indian Commission to address issues such as unemployment and how it becomes a barrier to housing among Natives at the local level. With still over 200 applicants on the waiting list for the Gimaajii shelter, AICHO works to get in the community and network with other organizations to address the issue at a systematic level, LeBeau said.
“As an advisory board, we try to implement policy that will affect Native people,” said Ricky W. DeFoe, co-chair of the commission, which works with AICHO on housing and employment issues. “If you don’t have a job, you don’t have much of a chance at getting any housing, and every generation of Native students are affected by poverty.”
Suzanne Kelley, one of the employed staff members of the commission, said that the whole goal of the commission is to bring these issues to light and present them to the city. “It’s really about having the indigenous population claim their existence in the area,” she said.
AICHO works with the commission on addressing these and other issues, as it continues to provide housing to Natives in Duluth.
“What are the institutional barriers to people getting jobs and affordable housing, and how can we change the social structure that allows that to happen?” LeBeau said. “Long term, if we built 100 more units of housing, we would still not address the need. We have to look at what changes need to be made systemically so we can stop this problem.”
For this reason, AICHO continues to work with other local nonprofits to address the issues of domestic violence and homelessness among Natives. In doing this, AICHO seeks to avoid duplicating services as well as enhance the services offered by these organizations.
“We’re just one place where Native people can access many services and get off the streets if they are,” said Pederson, her eyes still overlooking West Second Street. “We reach our hands out to other people. These things aren’t going away, and the best we can do is empower people to move forward.”
Click here for a photo story from the 24th annual Circle of Native Nations pow wow, which was held at Wessman Arena on the University of Wisconsin-Superior campus on March 30.
Click here to learn more about the nonprofit Mending the Sacred Hoop, located on East Superior Street in Duluth.