Plywood house in Savoonga with windows broken-out

August 25, 2018, was a big day for St. Lawrence Island, as U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski chaired a field hearing of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee. The field hearing focused on housing and the effects of overcrowding on Alaska Native and American Indian communities. Savoonga is currently experiencing a housing crisis; most homes face severe overcrowding.

Senator Murkowski and members of the committee heard the testimonies of six speakers in order to create what Senator Murkowski called “a public record” on the village housing situation as well as potential solutions:

“The reason we picked Savoonga, the reason we picked the Bering straits region is because there is extreme overcrowding throughout Alaska, particularly in rural (areas), our Native Alaskan communities, but the most extreme region is the Bering Straits region, and within that, Savoonga is the most in need.”

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) defines “overcrowded” as a situation where more than two people of the same sex must share a bedroom, or two people of the opposite sex who are not partners. HUD recognizes that overcrowding is “often an expression of homelessness.” Chris Kolerok is the President and CEO of Bering Straits Regional Housing Authority. His testimony gave context and statistics.

“Unsheltered homelessness in our villages likely means death here for 8 out of 12 months of the year. Rather than let someone die, the generous and kind people of our villages double, triple and quadruple up in homes, living in severely overcrowded conditions.”

The rates of overcrowding throughout all of Indian Country are higher than the national average: 16% of rural Native people experience overcrowding, compared to 10% of Native people in urban areas. The U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates that 2% of all U.S. households are overcrowded. Per Chris Kolerok:

“In the Bering Straits outside of Nome, the overcrowded rate is 37%. 19 of that is homes that are considered severely overcrowded, and during community meetings, we have been confronted with the heartbreaking stories of 21 people sharing a small three bedroom home.”

In Savoonga, overcrowding is 20 times the national average, with overcrowding at 61%.

There are six homes being built in Savoonga now, but before these, it had been 11 years since there had been any new construction. The total cost for the six homes is around $4.5 million, but they could be more economical than the current, older homes. The new units are expected to burn 220 gallons of fuel annually, as opposed to some homes that burn 100 gallons a month. Where possible, future homes can be built with Alaskan products and using local labor.

Still, the overcrowding is such that the new homes won’t make much of a dent in the issue. These are only six homes in a community where 75 families are living with overcrowding and where 50% of the population lives below the U.S. Census poverty line.

Jeanette Iyah spoke up at a community luncheon to tell the Senator the reality of what will happen.

“Somebody’s going to take over my house, as old as it is, just to alleviate the overcrowdedness. We also are a people that do not speak negative about our village. That’s not what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to alleviate the overcrowdedness, because there’s families within families. Sometimes, there’s three and four families in a house. That’s the reality that we live in. That message you and your people are gonna carry back, because you’re 4,000 miles away. We can’t get our message across. It’s too many miles.”

Barbara Kogassagoon, Savoonga’s eldest member at 92 years old, opened her home to the Senator and the committee. Sen. Murkowski recalled:

“We were in one home (with a) beautiful, little ten-month-old baby, and you think about that baby trying to crawl… in an area where it’s bare plywood on the floor… so you think about splinters on your hands and your knees.”

Like many, Barbara shares her home with her grandchildren and great-grandchildren due to lack of housing. The house was built by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) in 1977 and was not built for the conditions of the Arctic, where winds can reach 120 miles per hour. Costs on St. Lawrence Island have tripled since 1997, and as a result, many cannot keep up with adequate repairs or rebuild after storms. Indian block grant funds have decreased 28%, but fuel and other transportation costs continue to climb.

Several residents told Senator Murkowski they believe that bypass mail, the service that allowed goods to be sent by private air carriers rather than the U.S. Postal Service, was responsible for many of the cost increases.

Delbert Pungowiyi, the President of the Native Village of Savoonga, spoke to the community. “When Congress passed bypass mail, the impact was immediate,” Pungowiyi said. “The communities were shocked; our goods were more than doubled (in cost).”

In addition to costs, Melting permafrost has also caused homes to become dilapidated as the structures do not sink at the same rate.

Ben Pungowiyi, a lifetime resident of Savoonga, explains how keeping up with housing has become more difficult over the years:

“You can see the wear down on the paint; it doesn’t take much. Maybe first five seasons, paint starts peeling. We’re outside of the road system. We can’t keep up. The freight wasn’t so bad when the first houses were built; right now, it’s outrageous. The freight cost is a little more than double the amount of dollars for the actual, precut houses. Back in the ’70s, we used to have larger contractors that used to have fair prices for freight. Nowadays, we can’t keep up with it.”

Residents also expressed frustration that new applications for housing must be made every year.

Some told the committee that they’ve been reapplying on the list for as long as ten years.

In many homes, the conditions have become unsanitary. The community has seen outbreaks of tuberculosis due to overcrowding and poor sanitation because the water and sewage systems are at capacity. Brienne Gologergen, who runs the NSEDC clinic in Savoonga, explained that in such situations, those facing sexual and domestic partner violence are left with few options of escape.

There are homes in Savoonga that house 21 people in just 3 bedrooms. In such situations, it is common to sleep in shifts. But that means while one person sleeps, it can be hard to sleep through the time that the other person has to move around and be awake.

Gaetano Brancaleone, the principal of Hogarth Kingeekuk Sr. Memorial High School, was one of the six speakers to give testimony. He explained some of the challenges and goals of teaching in the community where students have to sleep in shifts or live directly amongst the difficulties of the adults around them, like illness or alcoholism.

 “Just very quickly, you get how much our kids are holding on their shoulders… We also have that struggle and that balance of trying to maintain the integrity of the classroom. We don’t want people sleeping, but also know they didn’t have somewhere to sleep. We try to promote a welcoming culture and supportive culture and try to provide counseling services or just emotional support for people when they need it. And then just goal planning for the future. Inspiring hope in kids that things can be different and you can do it.”

The community is hopeful.

Delbert Punogwiyi shared that the island’s traditional housing was weather-proof and built from the materials of the earth. In his testimony, he gave proposed solutions, including that Savoonga work with other organizations to “innovate from Yup’ik technology and design in order to create a multi-pronged strategy to improve and weatherize existing housing stock.”

Delbert has been working to get funding and capital for a reindeer farm that he hopes will establish industry on the island and be a new food source as climate change makes marine mammal hunting more difficult. He has hopes that this could be a way for Savoonga to be prosperous and self-sustaining in the future.

Though the testimony focused specifically on the severe conditions of overcrowding in Savoonga, Pungowiyi wants the solution to reach all of rural Alaska.

“I would like for all the state to know that I am speaking on behalf of all of rural Alaska for the housing crisis and high cost of living. All the beings that our creator created are all equal. We’re all equal. We’ll all one big family on this earth.”

Two teenagers spoke with KNOM and expressed that they wish to stay in Savoonga. Both Michael Kulowiyi and Patrick Gologergen have taken classes at NACTEC and shared that they were hopeful for new construction. Neither of them realized they grew up in houses that were considered overcrowded. But, they recognized that there aren’t enough places for people and families to live; new homes also mean jobs for young people like Michael and Patrick.

Jacob Iya is a high school senior from Savoonga who gave his testimony before Murkowski and the committee. Iya expressed hope that when conditions improve, the village will be able to focus on restoring their culture and native language. He wants to build a life and have a family but worries that there aren’t enough opportunities on the island for youth who want to do so. Still, he ended with this message to his community:

“Let us not look to the future with negativity or frustration but with happiness and hope.”

Image at top: A home in Savoonga, weathered by the harsh, coastal sub-Arctic climate. Photo: Emily Hofstaedter, KNOM.

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