Senator Murkowski brings field hearing to Savoonga
Senator Lisa Murkowski chaired a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee in Savoonga last Saturday to hear about inadequate housing, overcrowding and homelessness and the complications resulting from these problems.
In the session, which began with the bang of her gavel, she heard from a panel of six who are directly involved in providing housing or dealing with the issues which are created by the housing shortage.
Savoonga is one of two villages located on St. Lawrence Island. The 2010 census lists the population as 671, nearly all Siberian Yupik. “We chose Savoonga because it’s in the Bering Strait Region where overcrowding is as extreme as anyplace,” said Senator Murkowski to The Nugget. “And most extreme in Savoonga. So to be able to hear the people give testimony and that which the witnesses provided today was important. Being on the ground and in the homes both new and old to see for ourselves was the important part of establishing a committee record.”
The value of having a field hearing is that it becomes part of the record of the Senate. Senate Indian Affairs Committee staff were in attendance to see for themselves. ”We’re building a strong record and we’ve got to change this,” said Murkowski.
This was the first congressional hearing ever held in Savoonga.
The meeting began with a blessing from 92-year-old Barbara Kogassagoon, Savoonga’s oldest resident. She later showed Senator Murkowski her home, which is one of the structures built by the BIA in 1977 and long overdue for replacement.
Senator Murkowski described how she visited Savoonga in 2004 with the U.S. Secretary of Education to show him the reality of education in rural Alaska and how the state needed some exemptions from rules in the No Child Left Behind Act. At the school in Savoonga the secretary was shown the broom closet where the principal lived and a teacher pulled out the gym mat she slept on in her classroom because no housing was available. Fortunately, since then housing for teachers has been upgraded to the point where, according to the school principal, it is now adequate.
The Bering Strait region has one of the highest rates of overcrowding in the state with over 27 percent of the households having more than one and a half persons per room. The problem is often an expression of homelessness as people take in family members who either cannot find or cannot afford housing.
“The housing stock is deteriorating,” said Murkowski. “We’re not keeping up with population growth. In Alaska 18 percent of all Alaska Native housing lacks plumbing. Fifteen percent lack kitchen facilities, and estimated 465 homes in the Bering Strait region do not have access to running water or sewer.”
“The opportunity to put this on the record so that not only the community hears this, the staff of the committee hears this, but remember what happens when a written record is created. It is then available for the entire senate and for the entire Congress. This is a public record that we are creating here.”
Each of the six witnesses on the panel would speak for five minutes and also submit their written presentation for inclusion in the record of the hearing.
The first witness to speak was Greg Stucky, administrator for Native American programs for HUD. He’s based in Anchorage. “People in Savoonga are 20 times as likely to live in overcrowded housing as the average American. In order to alleviate overcrowding by 2025 it’s necessary to increase housing production by ninety percent.” His presentation detailed the complicated revenue stream which must be mastered to collect as much funding as possible to get housing built.
The second witness to testify was Delbert Pungowiyi, President of the Native Village of Savoonga. “The last houses built here in our community were 11 years ago,” he said. Currently six new units are just being finished up. Pungowiyi described how the island’s remote location drives the cost of living to astronomical heights. “The social issues that come with housing crisis, it’s all tied with our economic situation. We all know that Alaska has the highest rate of suicide in the nation. Alaska Natives have the highest rate of suicide in the nation.”
“We all know that housing is more than just a structure in how it impacts the social issues and the well being of our families,” responded Senator Murkowski to Pungowiyi’s testimony.
Nome’s Chris Kolerok is President and CEO of Bering Strait Regional Housing Authority, Legislative Chair of the Association of Alaska Housing Authorities and a board member for the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. “All of this has given me the experience to tell you that housing is the nexus of a healthy and economically fulfilled life,” said Kolerok, the third on the witness panel to testify. “Performing well in school, holding down a good job, even our physical health are all connected to a safe and sanitary and affordable home. Overcrowded housing is how homelessness is manifested in our villages.” He described three-bedroom houses with 21 people living in them, and talked about how they have to sleep in shifts because there isn’t enough bed space. “We know from studies in the circumpolar north that children in overcrowded homes perform worse in school, are more likely to be held back in grades, experience respiratory and skin infections at a higher rate than children in homes that are not overcrowded. Our children are literally harmed by the overcrowded conditions in which they live.”
“So too is overcrowding effecting housing shortages and homelessness in our regional and urban centers,” continued Kolerok. “People in villages such as Savoonga are pushed out of their villages due to the lack of housing and they are pulled to Nome or Anchorage by simple economics. The GDP per capita in the 2010 census in Savoonga was $7,000 versus $37,000 in Anchorage. There is a migratory link between village regional hub and urban centers that people regularly traverse, moving from Gambell to Nome to Anchorage and back. People with nowhere to live will attempt to move to Nome for the jobs and there, they will run into high rental prices and reduced safety nets. After working full time and barely affording their rent they will move to Anchorage in search of more affordable housing. And again they decrease their social safety net. In Anchorage with fewer relatives their distance from homelessness may be $50 on a rent payment.”
He went on to relate how building costs have tripled since 1997, yet Indian block grant money has increased at a much smaller rate. There are fewer contractors who respond to RFPs than just three years ago.
BSRHA engineers the houses locally and sources construction materials in Alaska. The energy efficient six new units nearing completion in Savoonga will burn just 220 gallons of fuel oil annually. Many of the old homes in the village burn 100 gallons a month, a serious problem for the homeowner.
Gaetano Brancaleone III is principal of Hogarth Kingeekuk Sr. Memorial School. Unlike one of his predecessors he does not have to live in a broom closet. He has been principal for five years and an educator in the village for eight years. He spoke of how housing issues affects his students. “Overcrowded housing can have a direct impact on the education of our students,” he said. “It can deprive them of basic needs such as sleep, it can lead to concerns with sanitation, health and basic quality of life. When the basic needs of our students aren’t met that can affect their overall well-being and their ability to focus on being successful in school.
“In our schools that impact of overcrowded housing is reflected in low attendance rates, exhausted and sleeping students in class, emotional distress and frequent illness and health-related absences,” he testified. “In speaking with these students and families, trying to find ways to support them, some of the challenges that often come up in conversation are those about large numbers of people in one home, sleeping in shifts, the difficulty of sleeping when it is your turn to sleep it’s someone else’s turn to be awake. Sleeping in corners, sleeping on a bare floor, sleeping on a pile of clothes, those are some of the challenges and obstacles the families are dealing with.
“The issue of overcrowded housing is one piece of the puzzle. I encourage that as we’re dealing with symptoms that we focus on long-term solutions that actually look at the source of some of these issues.”
Brancaleone then introduced student Jacob Iya, who spoke about how the overcrowding affects young people. “Some of these houses are so overcrowded that diseases such as a cold, the flu, and whooping cough can creep its way into the entire village if untreated.”
Brianne Gologergen is manager of the Savoonga clinic. She grew up in the village. “It is simply a stressful situation,” she said. “At a fundamental level, if you don’t have your own room or a quiet place to sleep, maintaining a regular sleep schedule becomes near impossible. When a person experiences a lack of sleep they can become irritable. In an overcrowded living situation the entire mood and atmosphere of the home can become hostile.” The clinic has to deal with the resulting violence. “When we have one sick kid everyone else in the house gets sick,” she said. “In recent years we’ve had an increasing amount of new tuberculosis outbreaks.”
The six new units have been built at a cost of $4.5 million. Chris Kolerok pointed out that in most places in America that kind of money would buy a mansion. But because of the local conditions materials are more expensive, shipping is expensive, and lack of infrastructure also drives up the cost. “For us here in Savoonga our biggest barrier to construction has been lack of infrastructure,” he said. Because the water and sewer system was operating at its maximum they had to build that out to handle the increased load of the six new units. Originally they’d planned to build seven units but this unexpected cost cut it back to six. In other villages they encounter the same problems.
“I need to make sure the people who are 4,000 miles from here can see and hear and feel why these issues are so important,” said Senator Murkowski. “You may be 4,000 miles away from our nation’s capital, but you are part of the United States of America. And as Americans you deserve to have safe and sanitary living conditions. So this is what we’re going to keep working on. So thank you for helping us create the record with the Indian Affairs Committee today.”
After a lunch of caribou stew and donuts in the school lunchroom the visitors took a tour of the village’s housing. Murkowski first looked at the 1977 home of elder Barbara Kogassagoon.
The 92-year-old shares this house with numerous grandchildren. It is well-worn and certainly long overdue for replacement. Several more weather-beaten houses were inspected and then the group took a walk around the Native store and looked at the prices. They looked at the new houses and then adjourned to the airport to board their charter back to Nome.