By Victoria Bomberry
PINE RIDGE, S.D. – The United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing Raquel Rolnik visited Pine Ridge Nov. 2 to investigate the housing conditions on the reservation.
Located in the poorest county in the United States, Pine Ridge provided Rolnik the opportunity to view housing conditions that reflect the problems present in Indian country throughout the United States. Pine Ridge is the only rural location on her tour of the United States. While Rolnik is responding to the nation-wide housing crisis, inadequate housing is a serious problem that plagues Indian communities in both rural and urban areas.
The UN Commission on Human Rights created the special rapporteur on the right to adequate housing in 2000 to examine and report on housing conditions in various countries.
Rolnik is making site visits at the invitation of the United States. “The United States has been implementing a variety of programs and policies towards providing adequate housing for everyone. I want to look at their functioning and impact from a human rights perspective.” The Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms that everyone has the right to housing.
“Pine Ridge is a case example of the extreme need that is out there,” said Mellor Willie, National American Indian Housing Council director. “They have a great leadership that is focused on working on housing issues. They are so remote and rural that they reflect the reality of rural Indian communities.”
During the daylong visit, Rolnik met with tribal officials and members to gather oral and written testimony.
The opening ceremonies took place at Oglala Lakota College where community members representing the diversity of the tribe welcomed her. She was received and honored by tribal President Theresa Two Bulls and Oglala Lakota College President Tom Short Bull. During the welcoming ceremonies, traditional members of the tribe presented Rolnik with star quilts – a reminder that the Lakota have a distinct living culture.
“We are very thankful that she is doing this,” Two Bulls said. “I’m happy that the United Nations is sending her here. I hope that she can get the United States to listen. We need people to see first hand what our needs are. I hope that interest spreads to hear our story. For too long it has been their story about what we need, not what we say we need.
My slogan when I ran for president was ‘Unity, Understanding and Peace.’ That can only happen if we all come together.”
Tribal members testified that severe overcrowding marks living conditions on the reservation. With an unemployment rate of 80 percent it is difficult for residents to maintain housing. Among the problems are inadequate repairs and mold that is hazardous to health.
A report prepared by the Oglala Sioux Lakota Housing Authority states that “housing built and indirectly maintained by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is in a deplorable state. The Lakota Nation, among other Indian nations, is a party to treaties with the United States, signed in the mid and late 1800s. Among the United States treaty obligations is the provision of subsistence and housing.”
“We are a sovereign nation built on treaties that the U.S. doesn’t honor,” said Myron Pourier, a tribal council member. “We don’t have the necessities people take for granted. They have nice homes that have running water, bathrooms and a kitchen.
Sixty percent of the housing on the reservation has three to four families living in a single house, including children and extended family members. We are severely underfunded.”
Willie stressed that the housing problems facing Indian nations are much more complicated than those of other populations in the United States. “It is estimated that 200,000 housing units are needed in Indian country. Currently 90,000 Native American families are homeless or under-housed. The president’s budget for housing block grants is $646 million, but $854 million is needed just to meet the backlog.”
Bill Means, of the International Indian Treaty Council and one of the hosts of the visit said, “Ms. Rolnik went into homes that are public and private housing. She saw the trailers and cluster housing. The reservation is 90 miles by 60 miles so she was able to get a good idea of the problems that exist here.”
On Nov. 7, Rolnik will brief tribal leaders in Washington, D.C. on her findings. Many leaders who are meeting with President Barrack Obama will extend their stay in Washington for the briefing.
Rolnik said many people in the world see the United States as a rich country that does not have a problem with housing. “It is important for the world to know about the housing conditions that exist. It is a question of economic resources.”