WINDOW ROCK-Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. recently expressed disappointment that the Navajo Housing Authority (NHA) Board of Commissioners declined to provide emergency shelter to a family of 10 that he believes was wrongfully evicted from an NHA home. The family has been homeless for approximately nine months and has been living in a makeshift shack since June.
"It's really appalling to see families living in such conditions in a super country like the United States," President Shirley said following a visit to the family's small doorless and windowless shack in Kinlichee.
President Shirley said he was especially concerned about the innocent young victims of an NHA policy that threw the family out of their home.
"By working together, as Navajo people, I know we can do something about the situation, about some of these children in need, some of these families that are in need," he said. "And certainly, in this case, we're going to give it everything we've got to try to get them something more permanent than just this shack that they're living in right now."
On July 27, the NHA Board held an emergency meeting at the President's request but declined to reconsider its October 2006 decision to evict the family of Wilton Davis and Karrie Manuelito despite being presented with photographs of the family's current living conditions, CHR and chapter reports, and information that no police or court records exist to substantiate NHA's finding that the family violated its "one strike and you're out" policy.
NHA Board Chairman Leonard Teller said a memo would be issued by NHA attorney Martin Avery to explain the board's position.
"This is not just going to take NHA," Chairman Teller told the board. "It's going to be a coordinated effort. It's a social service issue as much as it's a housing issue."
"I don't think any of the board of commissioners is heartless enough to continue to allow this," said Commissioner Roy Laughter. "We've seen the pictures in color ... I feel for the children."
Despite other expressions of compassion for the family, following an executive session the NHA board offered to give the family a $2,000 allowance instead of emergency shelter or reconsider its earlier decision.
However, Manuelito refused it, saying that acceptance would imply that her daughter had done something wrong when she hadn't, or that the family acknowledged a violation of the policy when it disputes there was one.
Manuelito, 33, explained that her family was evicted from NHA housing after her daughter, who was 13 at the time, was accused of stabbing a man during an altercation at the Kinlichee NHA housing area. She says her daughter was only a witness to the incident, and that another girl was arrested, charged, and is now completing a probationary sentence decreed by the Navajo Nation Peacemaker Court.
"She doesn't do drugs. She doesn't do alcohol," she said of her daughter. "She's a good person. She was just accused of that."
"I tried everything when we were evicted," she said. "I went to my council delegates. I told them in person. They didn't do anything. I wrote them letters. They never returned any phone calls or they never contacted us. That's when we just gave up."
Michelle Dotson, legal counsel for the Office of the President and Vice President, told the NHA board that the case is one of mistaken identity. She questioned whether the NHA administrative hearing process is truly fair, saying that neither the Navajo police nor FBI, both of which investigated the incident and interviewed the girl in the presence of her mother, ever sought prosecution of her.
"In this case, the family had no legal representation," Dotson told the board. "It's our understanding that no witness statements were provided to the contrary, the child was never arrested, and we have a statement in writing from Mikki Deerwater, who's the presenting officer in the Window Rock District Court, that there is no record or history of this case ever coming before the prosecutor's office. So we question whether or not the process of NHA's administrative hearing is a fair process. I think that's a fundamental question that needs to be addressed by the board."
In a July 26 letter to OPVP Deputy Chief of Staff Isabelle Walker, Deerwater said there is no record of Manuelito's daughter ever having been involved in the crime.
"If the alleged incident did occur," she wrote, "the Department of Law Enforcement would have investigated it and submitted their investigative report to our office and our office would have pursued prosecution in the Navajo Nation Court. In this case, our office never received an investigative report from the Department of Law Enforcement ... therefore we have no record of her in our office."
The letter also said that this information was provided to NHA and to the Navajo Division of Social Services.
Dotson said the President was not seeking long-term housing but an emergency remedy to remove the family from a dire situation that exposes them to monsoon rains and colder temperatures at night.
She said the family has already applied for a homesite lease, and that the customary land users in the area have consented. She said the President's office will request that their application be prioritized by the Navajo Land Department because of the family's living situation.
In addition to the President's staff, attending the emergency NHA meeting was Kinlichee Chapter President Christine Wallace, Community Health Representative Annie Shirley, Fort Defiance Social Services Supervisor Bessie McCabe, and Navajo Nation Council Health and Social Services Chairman Thomas Walker.
"I come here in humanitarian support," Walker told the board. "This is an extraordinary situation... When a policy becomes adverse, when it tends to do things that poses risks, hazards, that's when we need to get together and [revisit] that policy."
NHA Attorney Martin Avery told the board that NHA is required to adhere to its federally-mandated policies to ensure that its housing projects are safe.
"There's always a victim. There's always someone who gets hurt in some way," he said. "I've seen the pictures. I've read the stories, and I know it's a harsh result. But this is not uncommon to have a family with children being evicted."
He said when facing criminal activity in housing areas, NHA has to do something to deal with it. He said it would set a bad precedent to waive policy in this case.
Since October 2006, Davis and Manuelito and their eight children-aged three to 14-have moved from place to place as they continue to seek redress of a case of mistaken identity that caused them to be evicted from Kinlichee NHA Housing where they lived for two years.
In June, the family moved into the 10 x 12 foot shack constructed of boards and covered with plastic just off Highway 264. There are no restroom or kitchen facilities, no electricity or running water, and the family is continually exposed to the elements.
The family sleeps in two camping tents inside the shack. They seek shelter from the rain and wind inside a Dodge Caravan parked next to it. They take showers and do laundry at a church in Ganado. They cook over a small open pit fire. Perishable food is kept in two small coolers.
But that didn't stop coyotes from coming into the shack and rifling through a flour sack and food stores while the family was away.
"We got back around 10 at night," Manuelito said. "We were driving up and we could see those coyotes running out of the shack. We drove up to the door. Everything was all over the place. My husband's family gave us a half a bag of flour that day. They got into that. Then we had nothing to eat for the next day in the morning. We just threw everything away."
Thinking of her children and recounting her situation, Manuelito covers her face and silently cries, tears dripping from beneath her hand.
"If I did have another place to stay, I would have burned that place down," she says. "But we don't have any other place to go so we had no choice but to keep it up."
The family situation came to light just recently when Davis got a temporary fence-building job through the Kinlichee Chapter. Chapter Coordinator Milton Manny asked him if the family was camped out.
"That's when everything started," Manuelito said. "People started coming and helping us."
Among the first to visit was CHR Annie Shirley, who assessed the family's situation, chapter grazing official Bertha Wilson, and Chapter President Christine Wallace.
"As long as I've been an official, I've never come across a family in this situation, and what I've seen," Wallace said. "It really does break your heart."
Wallace said she placed calls to the NHA Ganado Office seeking information but did not receive a return call.
Manuelito told President Shirley and First Lady Vikki Shirley that despite their situation, she was determined to see her eldest daughter graduate from 8th grade.
"I just cried through the whole ceremony," she said. "I was just happy for my baby that she graduated. It was hard on us but she made it. She had to do her homework in the vehicle. It was the only place we could get light."
"Looking at the situation, I just felt for the children," Mrs. Shirley said. "Being a mother and having children, I'm just looking at them wondering where they're sleeping, what they're eating. It just really hurt me to see that situation."
Manuelito says the situation has been hard on her children, especially the older ones.
"They can't stand the way we're living," she said. "We're just trying very hard but we can't do it on our own."
"We'll get something done, I assure you," President Shirley told her, "if I have to get the hammer and hammer myself."