For Spokane tribal members, finding work can mean losing benefits

Regulations cut benefits for employed people, even if they're earning poverty wages — but tribes want to change that.

Alfred E. McCoy Administration Building

The Spokane Tribe's administration building in Wellpinit is at the center of efforts to help citizens find jobs and get back to work. Federal and tribal policies can make it more costly for some to stay unemployed than to take a low-paying job. (Monica Peone/Rawhide Press/file)

WELLPINIT, Stevens County — Businesses and jobs are booming in Eastern Washington, with casinos in Airway Heights and Chewelah and a host of related services.

But getting a job can cause a new sort of headache for citizens living on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

This story is part of a collaborative series, “At the Crossroads," from the Institute for Nonprofit NewsIndian Country TodayRawhide Press and eight other news partners, examining the state of the economy in Indian Country. This reporting was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.

The typical low-wage job available to many tribal citizens likely will mean a loss of housing subsidies and food assistance, with the added costs of child care. Under federal and tribal policies and regulations, benefits such as Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, are cut even for people earning poverty wages.

For too many, a job costs more than not having one.

“People can’t afford to get off of TANF and get to work,” said Ricki Peone, the Spokane Tribe’s director of health and human services. “These expenses could be a big hit to their income once they start earning a wage while trying to get back on their feet.”

The current unemployment rate on the Spokane Indian Reservation is about 37%, officials said. TANF is available for families for up to 60 months, though it can be continued indefinitely if the unemployment rate is greater than 50%.

The problems hit particularly hard for people starting over, young people with nowhere to live because of lack of housing, and the elderly, officials said. Tribal citizens recently released from prison have special problems because of additional housing limitations.

A recent local survey by the Rawhide Press, conducted as part of a special report, At the Crossroads: State of the Economy in Indian Country, found that many tribal citizens believe there is lateral and systemic oppression that keeps them from digging their way out of poverty.

Rawhide Press is one of 10 news partners in the collaboration project, which is led by the Institute for Nonprofit News and Indian Country Today through grants from the Walton Family Foundation.

The Rawhide Press survey found that the local policies encourage people to look for jobs off the reservation and away from home, causing hardships, particularly with time, gas and transportation.

“There is a hopelessness in our community that has been impacted by all that keeps a member from gaining employment, housing or trying to dig themselves out of poverty,” Peone said. 

But hope may be on the way. Several programs are now operating or are being developed to address some of the underlying issues, including housing, job training and certification, incarceration, addiction and mental health. 

“There isn’t a shortage of jobs here on the reservation,” said James Best, the Spokane Tribe’s manager of planning and economic development. “We want to help those become productive members of the workforce. Fix those avenues for that member who is trying to get on their feet and obtain a level of happiness.”

A message from Vi

No one knew the value of work better than Viola “Vi” Frizzell, who was the oldest citizen of the Spokane Tribe until she died March 10 at age 97.

In her last interview just a few days before her death, she told Rawhide Press about living through the flooding of her homelands for dam construction, pandemics, natural disasters, legal racism, oppression and the collapse of Wall Street and the U.S. economy.

Work got her through, she said.

“People need to get out and go to work, not just sit at home,” she said. “If I wasn’t in a wheelchair, I would be out there working.”

Over the years, Frizzell worked as a nurse's assistant in hospitals and nursing homes in California and Washington, supporting herself and her only child, daughter Geri Pelissier. She worked at Valley View Hospital and Nursing Center and at the Buena Vista Nursing Center in the kitchen, as well as a private care and nurse assistant for many in her community.

She served on the health board, the Senior Activities Committee, Spokane Tribal College Advisory Board, Strong Hearts Committee and the Spokane Tribal Culture and Language Program.

She said tribal citizens need to take advantage of education, training and other forms of learning.

“We’ve got money to get them to school,” she said. “Please go to college! You can do that now…. Use the money that is offered to you so you can get your education. I’m so proud of those who did and came back and are running things out here.

“I’m proud of the kids who do that,” she said. “There are more opportunities since I was young.”

But those hardships didn’t hold her back. In her later years, she continued to work to share the traditions and culture of the Spokane Tribe. She traveled the Spokane River helping search for remains of tribal ancestors after the riverbanks exposed graves. She was part of root digs and actively supported the Spokane Tribal Royalty.

“I am still working for the culture and will work wherever they want me,” she told Rawhide Press.

Trying to get ahead

The regulations and policies don’t help those who want to work.

The Spokane Indian Housing Authority has strict guidelines under the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Washington state has strict guidelines with food and child care assistance. TANF also has strict rules to follow because it is supported by federal dollars.

The Spokane Indian Housing Authority housing units are usually based on income tax credit, meaning a person must be at poverty level to qualify for housing. The ratio needed for obtaining a home is based on family size and income, officials said. 

Once a person obtains a job, that person’s rent increases, sometimes going up from $0 a month to a rent that some would consider a substantial hit to paychecks.

Convicted felons are not allowed to live in housing authority homes at all, making it impossible to start fresh and often returning them  to an environment of addiction and crime.

Food assistance also can be affected by low-level jobs.

If a person receives food assistance from the state, that person’s  gross income will be reported and will diminish the amount of food dollars the person can receive. And a person with a food card is not eligible for commodities distributed by the tribe.

For many, it’s simpler not to work at all.

Facing hurdles

After obtaining custody of her niece in 2019, Barbara Samuels struggled to make ends meet on the reservation. 

She finally decided to move to Spokane to live with her mother and look for work and got a job as a janitor at Amazon. She had trouble with child care and transportation, but was able to manage while her niece was in school.

When schools shut down for the pandemic, however, she lost her job. Then her mother died from cancer. She ended up in a shelter. 

She’s now getting help from the Spokane Tribe’s vocational rehabilitation program. She finally got housing, has an after-school program for her niece and TANF assistance so she can get back on her feet.

“I wouldn’t have the place now if I wasn’t homeless,” she said. “The place I was staying at, I couldn’t leave my niece there by herself. There wasn’t anyone to take care of my niece, especially on Sundays.”

Christopher Zilar, the tribal director of vocational rehabilitation, said Samuels is working to make a life for herself and her niece.

“I personally find great inspiration from her, all the challenges she has faced and overcome, and the perseverance she shows, which is beyond any other examples I have ever seen,” Zilar said.

Ricki Peone, the Spokane Tribe of Indian's director of health and human services, and her staff will oversee a new tribal program designed to provide a pathway to holistic recovery for tribal citizens by addressing incarceration, housing, treatment and sobriety with culturally based healing. (Monica Peone/Rawhide Press)

Samuels said she is motivated by the fact that she doesn’t want to go back to where she was.

“I think about my past and I don’t want to go back to that, and go back to the streets again,” she said. “One day it just clicked. I have … my niece to think about.” 

Spokane tribal citizen Darryl Carden likely would have also been on the streets if his mother hadn’t owned her home under a program from decades earlier through the Spokane Indian Housing Authority.

He was released from prison and would have been banned from tribal housing because of his felony conviction. He also struggled to get other assistance.

“I got out of prison, and I tried to get help and go to treatment,” he said. “I was told there was a long waiting list for open beds, and I never got a call back. I lost hope and will power; there was too much time in between trying to get the help I needed and what was necessary.

“I would have been homeless if it wasn’t for my mom.”

Because his conviction involved a traffic offense, he is also without transportation for at least a year, when he once again can try to obtain a license.

Although the Spokane Tribe operates the Moccasin Express Transportation Department for community members living on the reservation, Carden said the schedule did not fit for the employment he was trying to get.

For now, he’s biding his time until he can get back to work.

New priorities

Faced with historical trauma, current trauma and community needs, the Spokane Tribal Business Council and other departments are now developing a “Priority One Project” to help tribal members recovering from addiction and incarceration, according to a project description from Frank Metlow, who at the time was the tribe’s director of planning and economic development.

The program is designed to provide a pathway to holistic recovery for tribal citizens using a four-piece program that addresses incarceration, housing, treatment and sobriety with culturally based healing.

The first step would create a justice center — essentially a local jail — that allows tribal members to remain close to their families while they are serving their time. 

“In the past, we have not had the facility to house our tribal members who are incarcerated,” Metlow said in the project description. “This results in those members being located far away from family contact and being exposed to higher levels of criminals, resulting in them developing their abilities to be criminals instead of gaining skills to become productive citizens of the community.” 

The next step would be transitional housing, essentially like a halfway house, to provide a safe place in a controlled environment as they return to society. The third piece is treatment, using behavioral therapy, counseling and medication to treat addictions. 

And the final piece of the program is called the Wellbriety program, providing “culturally based principles, values and teachings to support healthy community development and servant leadership,” Metlow stated. The Wellbriety program is already a health program now being offered.

The four-piece program will be run by Peone and staff. Whether to build a new facility or remodel an existing building is still under consideration, and community grants are being pursued to help fund the programs.

“This project will focus on all components that work for tribal members who have addiction/law enforcement issues,” Metlow said. “Anyone who has barriers to employment, the priority is to help in the health and wellness of our community. This includes getting tribal members back into the workforce and in turn gives them quality of life.”

Another plan would focus on the Wellpinit community, where the tribal jail and health clinic are based, creating single-family houses and apartments that would be available to those who are single. 

Best, who runs the tribe’s workforce development program, is also working to help citizens obtain the training and skills needed to get a job and get any necessary certifications.

The combined efforts could help the community work its way out of the problems, leaders said.

“One thing this project will do, it will have a sustainable local workforce,” Best said. “These individuals are people from our community whose heart is there for their families, community and tribe. It is a positive project, and we are excited to move forward working on this.” 

This story was originally produced for Rawhide Press and is part of a collaboration from INN’s Rural News Network in partnership with INN members Indian Country TodayBuffalo's FireInvestigateWest, KOSUNew Mexico In DepthUnderscore and Wisconsin Watch, as well as partners Mvskoke MediaOsage News and Rawhide Press.The project was made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

default profile image

Monica Peone

Monica Peone is editor of the Rawhide Press, which is owned and operated by the Spokane Tribe of Indians.