"We know that between 32 to 34% of our people are homeless," said Ben Bement, the Director of Human Services for White Earth Nation.

Bement believes this percentage is because of a lack of housing on the White Earth Reservation, but especially affordable housing. Many of the people who fall into that percentage live with a family member or friend, but "are without a home," Bement said.

"We don't put our people out on the street," he explained. "We keep them in our homes."

To help those who are experiencing homelessness, and lower the number of them, Bement, other Human Services department members, and members of both the Health Division and Behavioral Health Programs worked together to develop an Emergency Hotel Voucher & Emergency Assistance Program.

With the program, people experiencing homelessness who are enrolled White Earth members and at least 18 years of age are provided shelter and food for three to four days at the Shooting Star Casino in Bagley.

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The program started Jan. 11 and, as of Jan. 30, 14 people have used the program.

Some more than once.

'Short-term fix on a long-term problem'

The Emergency Hotel Voucher & Emergency Assistance Program is not a long-term solution to homelessness on the White Earth Reservation.

"We really hope to have some kind of resolution within the week," Bement said. "We hope to find other resources (for homes), and get them involved in services so we can start heading down finding apartments and stuff like that."

They help families and individuals, although it can be difficult to help large families because of the size of the hotel rooms.

"(The rooms are) only one bed," Bement said. "We might do a couple and two kids. But, it's limited."

While staying there, people are provided one meal a day, some snacks and are given tokens for the White Earth Public Transit.

"We definitely worked with transit on getting a regular route for them," Bement said, adding that it comes by four times a day. "Right now our biggest needs are snacks. (They) are a highly requested item ... A donation of healthy snack foods would be great."

'There is a need'

There are five rooms available for the program, and since starting the program the rooms have almost always been at capacity, Bement said.

"We're hoping in the future we may be able to expand that to maybe seven or more," he said. "It's a growing process. We're learning."

Bement isn't sure how long the program will exist, as it is only temporary. Funding comes from what the Tribal Council designated to the Behavioral Health Program, so the funding won't run out.

The long-term, permanent goal is to build an actual shelter. Helping the homeless community has been in the works for many years, Bement said, but it takes a lot of effort, time and money to build a shelter. The emergency program was a stepping stone.

Since starting the program, they have started looking into contractors and other measures to start the shelter, and are developing a 10-year plan on homelessness, Bement said.

"We're learning, we're getting better," he said.

Program information

Phone: 218-935-5554, Ext. 3212 (Human Services Homeless Program)

Website: whiteearth.com/programs/human_services/services

Facebook: www.facebook.com/WhiteEarthNation/

Participants must be: An enrolled White Earth member and at least 18 years old, or with a guardian that is at least 18 years old

To help: Health snack donations, such as granola bars, can be dropped off at the front desk of the Naytawausch Community Service Center at 2531 310th Ave., Naytahwaush, MN 56566.