Leupp project to bring elderly home

LEUPP-The Leupp community has long wanted to bring its elderlies home, elderlies lost to nursing homes in the bordertowns and around the state because few facilities for elderly care exist on the reservation.

Now, thanks to new partnerships between Leupp Chapter, the Navajo Nation, Coconino County, the State of Arizona and Mercy Housing, that dream may come true.

On Thursday, July 13, Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye, Coconino County Supervisor Tom Chabin and many other dignitaries came to Leupp to announce the construction of 70 assisted-living housing units for the elderly.

"This is an historic occasion," said Leupp Chapter President Jim Store. "Many of our elderlies have been in institutions for many years, they miss their children, some have been forgotten."

President Begaye likened the situation on the reservation to the Long Walk, when the Navajo people were taken to Ft. Sumner, New Mexico, for four years, and longed to return home.

"Four or five of my own relatives have been in nursing homes," said Begaye. "Marie's mom is back in a nursing home now. Our elders need to be closer to home, close to families, relatives and livestock. Marie's mother always asks, 'How are the sheep, how are the horses?'" he said.

"We need guidance from our elders whether they are in our own homes or in nursing homes...." he said. "Our elders are our roots. They are salt; they add flavor. I always ask the people, 'would you eat a whole rib without salt?'"

The desire to bring elderlies home to the reservation is not a new one. Several years ago, the Leupp community tried to establish the Southwestern Nursing Home Project but could not come up with adequate funding.

Tom Chabin, Coconino County Supervisor for District 4, said that his office was one of the organizations that was approached for money, but didn't have any to offer.

"That is something you remember," he said. Since that time, Chabin has been working to find a way to help the Leupp community establish a facility for the elderly, and, he says, the time has finally come.

"Everything has its place and time," he told the crowed, packed into the Leupp Chapter House. "All the work that Leupp did [for the Southwest Nursing Home] prepared them for this. Nothing is hopeless, no one wastes time, no one wastes energy."

The key to this project's success, said Chabin, is effective partnerships. "This is a great day," said Chabin. "Everyone said yes....If I ever thought I could do something like this in public life once, I would consider my entire public life a success."

Two years ago, Chabin and Leupp community members began meeting with Mercy Housing, a non-profit organization that meets low-income housing needs around the United States. Mercy Housing, said Chabin, "is truly considered the best" at what they do.

Chabin pointed out that most nursing homes, like those in Flagstaff, Winslow, and Phoenix, are privately operated and receive a portion of their funding from the counties and the state. Coconino County, he said, pays 35% of all long term care for county residents in these facilities. Looking for a private institution, rather than the Indian Health Service or the Navajo Nation, made the best financial sense.

The project will be different from those Mercy Housing has done in the past, said Steve Hastings, Vice President of Mercy Housing. While the organization usually models new housing projects on those they have already constructed, they recognized that this would not work on the Navajo Nation.

"We have never contemplated a project where the land was so precious," he said. The housing units should be designed with what the community wants, so that they represent the landscape that sit on, he said. Hastings said that he expects they will break ground for the project in two years.

Begaye, Chabin and Hastings all said that they hope that the project will serve as a model to

other communities on the reservation. Hastings said now that Mercy Housing has made a commitment here, they will most likely want to work on other facilities in communities like Kaibeto, Inscription House and Tolani Lake.

"Leupp is to be commended," said Begaye. "They have taken community ownership; they have taken a stand and decided that they do not have to look to the Navajo Nation for everything."

Tom Cody, Council Delegate for Leupp, explained that Mercy Housing may operate the new facility, but they will not provide the services offered there. That job will fall to the Navajo Nation Department of Health and the Health and Social Services Committee, who will train community members to work with the elderly.

The facility, said Cody, will serve people who are still ambulatory and can get around fairly well by themselves but cannot do everything. For example, he said, "it can serve those who can't live in their homes in the winter, without wood or water. In the summer, though, they can go back to their sheep and gardens."

While assisted-living means that the elderly have access to 24-hour care-the main building will staffed around the clock-they will still be living mostly on their own. During the day, people may come in to help them shower or cook for them, but the facility will also have a main activity center or senior center where elderlies from the entire Leupp community can go for meals and social gatherings.

The opportunity for the elders involvement in the community is important, said Cody, and the housing units will be located right behind the public school, so that the elderlies can get involved in youth education.

Above all, the housing will be affordable, said Cody. "The income of the family will determine how much they must spend," said Cody. Rents are based on poverty guidelines, and residents will spend between 0% and 30% of their income. "If they make nothing, they will be charged nothing," he said.

Operation costs will come from Coconino County, federal dollars from Navajo Nation Social Services, the Navajo Nation general fund, Medicare and AHCCCS. In 25 years, said Cody, Mercy Housing will turn the facility over to the Chapter outright.

While everyone is optimistic that this project will indeed get off the ground, Tom Chabin said the County must stay involved, "bringing political pressures to bear, to overcome all challenges and to teach everyone to say yes." Chabin said he was thankful for the cooperation from Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye, who has said that the project partners can use his office to resolve issues. "That is extremely important," he said.

Chabin also said he will continue looking for ways to fund small projects, studies and grants that will help streamline the construction and operation process.

And if everyone does say yes, more elderlies will be able to stay at home. "More elderlies," said Begaye, "will be able to stay within the four sacred mountains."

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