TOPPENISH — A homeless encampment on the Yakama Reservation turned into a construction site Monday when more than 50 volunteers gathered to cut lumber, pound nails and erect tiny houses for tribal members who are living there in tents.

About 50 families — some 130 people including children and infants — have been living at the encampment at the Yakama Nation RV park just west of Toppenish since they were evicted from tribal housing projects during the summer for failing to comply with lease agreements.

They are among some 270 tribal members evicted, the largest wave of evictions at tribal housing projects in recent history on the 1.2-million-acre reservation.

Although painful, the upheaval over the evictions is bringing the tribe together and fostering a cultural change in the tribe’s housing projects with many displaced members now seeking the help needed to put their lives back together. The micro house construction represents the latest effort in bringing about that life-changing transformation.

“This crisis has kind of turned into a blessing for the families that are taking advantage of holistic family wraparound programs,” said Jenece Howe, who oversees the encampment and provides case management to those living there. “If they don’t want to change their lives for the better, then we have to bring in families that do want to participate.”

Programs, such as substance abuse treatment, GED classes, and even classes on banking, are being offered. Those living in tents must comply with certain rules to get into a tiny house. Adults have to provide 10 hours of cleanup work around the RV park, attend tenant meetings once a week and refrain from alcohol and drug use, Howe said.

“We’re putting everything into it we can for people who want to change their lives,” Howe said. “But what’s so exciting is some of our tenants are in treatment. They’re changing their lives. We can make things happen here.”

On Monday, many of those evicted, including Billie Shoulderblade, took a major step in bettering their situations by helping build the 8-by-10-foot structures that will serve as temporary housing.

Shoulderblade, who is living in three tents with her seven children and husband, was evicted for being behind on rent. Most of the evictions occurred at Apas Goudy, a tribal housing project in east Wapato, where a $14 million project is underway refurbishing the 58 tattered homes and duplexes there.

For long, lease agreements had gone unenforced, and problems with drug use, overcrowding and crime became commonplace, tribal housing officials said.

Many were evicted for failing drug screenings, having too many people living in their homes and, like Shoulderblade, being long behind on rent.

“It’s been a learning experience,” Shoulderblade said. “I’m trying to do as much as I can for my kids, my family.”

Also helping were tribal employees who had the day off for Indigenous Peoples Day. Eventually, at least 50 micro houses equipped with electric heaters, a light and an electrical outlet will be built. But the objective Monday was to get three, maybe four, erected in a single day, said Yakama Tribal Council Chairman JoDe Goudy, who is spearheading the project.

“The ultimate goal is to get our membership back into their own homes,” Goudy said. “We think it’s a good thing. At the end of the day, it comes down to the manner we help one another, take care of one another.”

Lumber for the houses is being provided by the tribe’s sawmill, and area businesses have donated building supplies. Each unit costs about $4,870 to build, and they are designed to house a double bed with a single bunk bed on top to sleep as many as possible, said Elizabeth Nason, who is helping organize the project. Floors, walls and ceilings are insulated.

Although the houses lack plumbing, residents are allowed to use the RV park’s restrooms, showers and laundry facilities. The micro houses will remain at the RV park for now, but are mobile and easily moved, Goudy said.

A sovereign nation, the tribe is exempt from building code requirements. Nonetheless, the tiny houses are being built to meet minimum building standards and will be inspected by the tribe’s electrical inspector for safety, said Craig Dougall, executive director of the tribe’s housing authority.

Micro housing projects are becoming a popular way to get homeless people off the streets. A small village of tiny houses in Eugene, Ore., has proved itself successful, and now a group of homeless advocates is working to establish one in Yakima.



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