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Native Americans moving off reservations face discrimination in Montana

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Eric Tegethoff

(Big Sky Connection) Native Americans in Montana face a slew of challenges to finding housing off reservations - including discrimination. A tight housing market in the state and across the country presents its own problems for finding an affordable place to live.

But Les Left Hand, program director for All Nation Youth Partner for Success in Billings, said his last name was a barrier for him and his wife when they were looking for a home, and added eventually they used her maiden name on applications.

"When she applied for some of these places as just 'Leslie Martin' they were more open to that until they saw my name on there." he said. "Then that's when the red flags were waved and, of course, some of them were just outright not willing to talk to us."

Left Hand's organization works to prevent drug use among young people ages nine to 20 and he said people they work with, as well as his friends and family, have similar experiences. Rental costs like security deposits and first and last months' rent can be challenges as well. Census data finds more than a quarter of Native Americans live in poverty.

Left Hand said young people especially find it hard to move off their reservations because they are not as financially established.

"It's frustrating for them and that's when they give up and go back home and have to live in a tight, cramped household again because we don't really turn away any of the family members that do come back," Left Hand said. "We just accommodate until they can find a better resource or a different avenue."

Analyses on housing issues for Native Americans are scarce but a study from before the pandemic found 16 percent of Native Americans reported overcrowding, compared with 2 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

Left Hand said organizations like the Native American Development Corporation can help people who feel they have been discriminated against, or are having trouble looking for housing. Most of all, he encourages people to be persistent.

"I'm always willing to help people out and try to steer them in the right direction and then just give them the hope that there is somebody out there that might have an opportunity to open a door and then they succeed in that area," he said. "But then like I tell them, don't give up so easily."