PORTLAND, OREGON - Native Americans comprise about one percent of our nation's children. If life was fair and, statistically speaking, normally-distributed you'd expect that about one percent of the children in foster care would be Native American.
Not so. Nationally, Native American children are more than twice as likely to be in foster care as their population would suggest.
Closer to home, the disproportion is considerably greater. Like Multnomah County in Oregon, the state's most populous county and home to Portland, its biggest city. The 43-year-old non-profit NAYA – the Native American Youth and Family Center - "one in five Native American children in Multnomah County is in child welfare custody." That, it adds, is a rate "26 times higher than white children."
Forced separation from one's family and culture, of course, is the most immediate hardship these children face. But by no means the last. They're more likely, for example, to "age out" of foster care. More likely to drop-out of school and never go back. More likely to experience mental and physical health issues. More likely to be homeless. More likely to be far behind rather than ahead or even just "even" with their peers as they enter adulthood. They are, says NAYA, "some of the Native community's most vulnerable elements."
And it's why, The Oregonian reported,, in July, 2014 representatives from NAYA, the local neighborhood association, the public school system and the city, county state and the office of then-Governor gathered on an empty, three-acre lot in the Lents neighborhood in southeast Portland that formerly had the site of Foster Elementary School. They were there to sign a "living" Declaration of Cooperation to build "an innovative integrated inter‐generational housing and learning community" focused "on exiting Native children who are currently disproportionately represented in the child welfare system, and providing them with permanency within a caring family surrounded by a supportive community."
Though the Declaration was non-binding, in less than three years the new 40-unit complex – called Generations – opened its doors thanks to funding from the City of Portland, the Oregon Department of Housing and Community Services, Portland Public Schools, the Network for Oregon Affordable Housing, J.P. Morgan Chase, the Meyer Memorial Trust and HUD. "This is more than housing," one person who attended the grand opening told Affordable Housing Finance. "It's a true community that promotes stability, collaboration, and caring relationships."
HUD Secretary Ben Carson often urges HUD and its partners to take a "holistic" approach to meeting the needs and helping advance the dreams of those we serve. "We cannot simply put a roof over someone's head," he recently told the Tribal leaders in Montana, "while ignoring the needs of their body and mind."
Generations fits that model to a T. Ten of its 40 units are for "Native American youth and their siblings in foster care are connected to adoptive parents in stable, affordable housing" targeted to families at 60 percent or less of area median income. The rest are occupied by Elders who "become adopted grandparents and mentors who can "age in place" with a renewed sense of purpose, helping with child care and providing wisdom." Together not as "clients" but as friends and, neighbors who "care for each other" parents and Elders become "the first line of intervention." "The immediate housing needs of Portland's urban Indian community are at an all-time high right now," says NAYA executive director Paul Lumley, "especially with the growing Native homeless population. Through partnership, we have been able to provide safe and affordable housing to for families in need."
Like the partnership that has given rise to Generations, a place intentionally created to support the most fundamental of partnerships – a family. For as a garden is to vegetables, so a family is to children. Nurture them and they will thrive. And when they thrive so do the rest of us.