On Rural Reservations, Homelessness Less Visible Than Elsewhere

Dec 9, 2016

Korean Veteran Hugh Ridgely moved into his truck after heavy rains destroyed his roof.
Credit Melodie Edwards

There’s a housing crisis going on at the Wind River Indian Reservation in central Wyoming. For its fast growing population of 15,000 residents, there aren’t nearly enough homes to go around, and very little funding to build more. The problem has led to high rates of homelessness in Fremont County. But on rural reservations like Wind River, homelessness doesn’t look much like it does in big cities.

Last spring, when the rains came pouring through his roof, 85-year-old Hugh Ridgely moved out of his house and into his truck. Sitting behind his steering wheel, he points out the window at a ramshackle cabin under the cottonwoods.

“See, this old house, this log house?” Ridgely said. “My dad built that back in early 30? 35? Somewhere. And, uh, he just used an axe and a team of horses.” He even remembers the exact tributaries where his family went to log the timber for the house.

It was his relative Lynelle Shakespeare, who lived nearby, who first realized what was going on.

“So when I did it was the evening time,” said Shakespeare. “And I pulled in and he was sitting on his truck. And I gave him some food and he just ate it real fast and he was real hungry. I said, you got enough blankets? Because he just had a jacket over his legs. And I says, how come you’re sleeping in your truck? He said my house flooded out. And I said, oh man. When I left, I started crying.”

The log cabin built by hand by Ridgely's father in the 1930's.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Hugh Ridgely is a decorated Korean War veteran who fought in the Battle of Bunker Hill, one of only nine soldiers out of 250 who survived. But, Shakespeare says, “It ain’t just because he’s a vet. He’s an elder. He’s one of the last that know our native language, the old style. God, he’s 85 years old!”

Shakespeare offered to let him live in a spare room at her house

“He said, no. He said, it’s my home. He says, I’m not leaving it.”

Looking around Ridgely’s house, Shakespeare pointed out the flood damage, pointing up at the ceiling where large patches of blackness have spread down the wall.

“This is where the water was coming and it flooded this whole thing,” said Shakespeare. “It’s all over, it’s all over in there.”

Shakespeare tried to clean up the mold in his house herself but soon realized she needed help. She turned to people like Cherokee Brown, a long time veteran advocate on the reservation.

“Every family on the reservation has at least one veteran in their family, if not more,” said Brown. “Every family.”

But even so, for years, getting home loans through the Veterans Administration for repairs like Ridgely’s has been impossible because of a legal technicality based on where his home is. The V.A. doesn’t have a Memorandum of Understanding to give these loans on the Wind River Reservation yet. After many years of trying, the Northern Arapaho are in the final stages of completing that process, but still, it was clear to Brown it wouldn’t happen in time for winter.

She said another option through the Volunteers of America offered to pay for him to move to town.

“But since he’s not willing to move from his home, which is on tribal land, into town, which, why should he? This is his home. This is where his roots are, this is where his family was raised. He shouldn’t have to move to have access to those dollars or to those funds.”

The TERO crew works on hooking up a sewer line to a travel trailer purchased by the Northern Arapaho tribe to help Ridgely move out of his truck.
Credit Melodie Edwards

Since Ridgely won’t move, the Northern Arapaho tribe paid for a travel trailer to install on his property. For over a week, James and Stanford St. Clair from the Tribal Employment Rights Office have been hooking it up.

“This here is we’re tying into the sewer system,” said James

“[We] hooked up electricity,” said Stanford. “Yeah, and we put some water out there.” They also built a handicapped accessible ramp since Hugh Ridgely has trouble walking.

Veteran Advocate Brown says veterans are humble and won’t necessarily ask for this kind of help.

“Thing is, there’s so many other veterans out there that need the same thing, they face the same challenges that Hugh’s facing right now.”

Brown says there are 300 homeless families on the reservation right now but, like Ridgely, they aren’t necessarily on the street. Here, people make room, squeezing in wherever they can.

But it’s a slippery slope and sometimes they do end up sleeping in a vehicle or at the park. Since 2014, when the state hired a homelessness coordinator and began conducting point-in-time counts of homeless people, Fremont County has had some of the highest numbers. Last January, about 100 unsheltered homeless were counted here.

“But that doesn’t even count or include the individuals who stay from house to house every night or every week,” said homeless advocate Charles Aragon, the organizer of a recent conference on homelessness in Riverton. Aragon feeds the homeless at the local park every Tuesday. He says the reservation housing shortage creates a cycle that feeds on itself.

“Ten to 12 people living under one house, you know, they maybe only have one or two vehicles and so, if you’re not on one of those vehicles when it leaves to take everybody to work, that means people not going to jobs, job interviews, people not going to school, people not getting college degrees. People not going to clinics for physical and mental health issues, medications…”

He says that can lead to depression, alcoholism, and other social problems.

“And so they don’t have any other option but to go out into the street. Some people have lived in their vehicles. It’s hard to find a way out. Hard to find that one or two people who’re going to help you out.”

For Korean Vet Hugh Ridgely, though, he’s found a few people to keep him from sleeping in his truck this winter. But with these subzero temperatures, the solution isn’t a permanent one for an elderly man. The question is whether the VA will find a way through the red tape to help him rebuild his family home in time for next winter.