Chief Seattle Club Builds a 'Home' to Combat Indigenous Homelessness
Jolene Neiss is in repose. She sits on the edge of a twin bed, palms pressed against her Seahawks duvet, chin tilted upward to receive another blessed blast of air. On a scorching June afternoon, a fan hums below a defunct air conditioning unit across from her. Its gusts easily carry across the dorm-sized room. To stay cool, she advises softly, just “stay still.”
All her life Neiss has had to move. Growing up, she bounced from reservation to reservation in South Dakota, trying to shake physical and emotional abuse from some of those closest to her. Long journeys to Minnesota and Washington followed. In Seattle, she spent her first eight or so years living outside, pitching a tent everywhere: in the vicinity of a Fremont printing shop’s trash cans, in the shadows of a Christian Science church in Magnolia. During that period she started visiting Chief Seattle Club, the Pioneer Square nonprofit with a mission to provide “a sacred space to nurture, affirm, and renew the spirit of urban Native people.” In late 2019, Neiss moved into its Eagle Village, a series of subdivided modular buildings that offer temporary, gated respite along a quiet SoDo street where King County Metro buses idle between routes. It took a whole year for Neiss to stash her tent, tarp, and sleeping bag, to relinquish her “security blanket.”
On this summer day she’s weighing yet another move. In October, Chief Seattle Club plans to open ?ál?al, an eight-story affordable housing development in Pioneer Square “designed by Native people for Native people” (though, per the Fair Housing Act, it cannot discriminate against any applicant). The building’s name is Lushootseed for “home,” a tribute to the Coast Salish that inhabited the area long before white settlers arrived. Depictions of canoes on the brick facade and a 25-foot welcome figure near the entrance will also honor the neighborhood’s Native roots.
But the project has ambitions beyond acknowledgment. With enough outreach, the club hopes to fill three-quarters of ?ál?al’s 80 studios with people who’ve experienced homelessness, a condition felt acutely among Indigenous communities in the Seattle area: Though they represent just 1 percent of King County’s population, American Indians and Alaska Natives comprised 15 percent of its most recent count of unhoused people. Some, like Neiss, have long sought the array of services—meals, health care, housing assistance—available at the club’s day center on Second Avenue; ?ál?al will now provide that same access for its residents, with the vital addition of safe, permanent apartments instead of a 2pm daily checkout. “We’re going to see people actually starting to work through their trauma,” says executive director Derrick Belgarde.
“Home” is not a free arrangement, but Neiss doesn’t fret about making rent. She receives Supplemental Security Income benefits and, when she’s not enduring kidney or heart problems, works various odd jobs. Her Lakota upbringing also ingrained a love for beadwork. “I sell these for $10 a pair,” she notes, lifting earrings with porcupine quills.
Still, she wonders about safety near the new building. Violence at a group of tents in Pioneer Square has broken out in recent weeks; days earlier, 33 King County Superior Court judges called for the closure of the encampment at City Hall Park. “If that camp is there,” Neiss says, “I don’t want to live there.”
In 1852, white settlers landed in what is now known as Pioneer Square. Since then the neighborhood has served as ground zero for the stories Seattle tells about its past—and how it reckons, or not, with its reality. While a certain Gold Rush fervor courses through the cracks in the area’s cobblestone streets, a bust of Chief Seattle affirms that the territory is more deeply rooted in the histories of the Duwamish, Suquamish, and other Coast Salish peoples who first erected a village there, whom colonizers forced out. “This is a Native city,” Colleen Echohawk, Chief Seattle Club’s former executive director, said during ?ál?al’s topping off ceremony in April.
It’s also a city roiled by a homelessness crisis, a political quagmire that has led more than a dozen mayoral candidates to propose a muddled mix of solutions, from park sweeps to permanent supportive housing, in the run-up to this November’s election. Echohawk’s own campaign could stand behind her work on homelessness at the club, including ?ál?al, the city-backed project she led for years before stepping aside in May. Most of the building’s residents will make no more than 30 percent of the area’s median income (AMI). The cap isn’t a new way to mitigate homelessness, but buildings with such a limit aren’t common enough to meet the demands of extremely low-income families. “We do have to have an eye toward really radically expanding the availability in the zero to 30 percent [AMI] space,” says Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority.
The less replicable part of ?ál?al is its cultural savvy. As a Native-centered organization in a neighborhood where tents line stretches of sidewalk and a “Skid Road” rep still lingers, Chief Seattle Club sits at the intersection of the city’s current and original sins of displacement. Today it helps about 1,500 Native members per year heal via talking circles, smudging, and sweats, among other traditional approaches. Case managers rapidly rehouse some members, but placements can be in the suburbs, away from the community they’ve cultivated at the club. “Home” will preserve those ties and a sense of belonging. “It takes a culturally appropriate program to reach very vulnerable communities, especially ones that have suffered as much trauma as our community,” Belgarde says.
The executive director, who is Siletz and Chippewa-Cree, was experiencing homelessness himself when he discovered Chief Seattle Club. Alcohol and methamphetamine addictions separated him from his family living in Issaquah; he chose to sleep outside rather than crash in a congregate shelter. “I didn’t check into the shelter because it scared me and tripped me out, being around mental health issues, being around people talking to themselves.”
At the day center, he found solace in the drumbeat of the gathering circle, and staffers arranged for him to enter a treatment program. Seven months later, he was clean. He went back to school, got his bachelor’s degree, then his master’s. Reconnected to his family and culture, he wanted to build an overnight shelter for Natives. “There’s a lot of isolation being a Native in this country, in any case,” he says, “but being in an urban place, that isolation seems compounded.”
Neiss knows it. She walked alone for years, distrustful of the elders, of the culture, that had abused her as a child. When she arrived in Seattle, she was “hard.” Long a teetotaler, she started drinking and “beating everyone up.” But the Seattle Indian Health Board at Chief Seattle Club helped her kick the drinking habit, and hanging around the club softened her. Members called each other brother and sister. They hugged. They didn’t judge. “It was like finding freedom,” Neiss says.
In the next phase of her life, Neiss just wants to pay rent and follow the rules, to be “a Native American who has an apartment.” Even if she doesn’t end up at ?ál?al, she’s happy it’s there. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity that these Natives have with that building,” she says. “Regardless of their race, their creed, their religion, whatever, they’re just given the chance to be heard.”