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Hope arrives for transitional housing program that serves Native women

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Kateri Residence provides transitional housing for Native American women.
Kateri Residence has been providing transitional housing for Native American women in recovery for 44 years.
Courtesy of St. Stephen's Human Services

An endangered transitional housing program that serves Native American women struggling with addiction may be able to remain open.

Earlier this month, St. Stephen's Human Services announced it was closing Kateri Residence, which has been around for 44 years. It's named after the first Native American woman to be decreed a saint by the Catholic Church.

"My understanding is there really is nothing else in the state of Minnesota that's quite like the Kateri Residence program," said Gail Dorfman, executive director of St. Stephen's Human Services. Kateri Residence was started by St. Stephen's church in 1973 in response to needs church members saw in the neighborhood.

"They bought a fourplex over near the church," Dorfman said. "They called it a halfway house for women and their children, who were homeless and in need of recovery."

Kateri combines recovery methods such as Alcoholics Anonymous with American Indian culture and spirituality. Women can stay up to two years.

But in recent years the program has lost some important funding sources. It has built up a growing deficit, and the 1916 house needs costly renovations.

In addition, Dorfman said, the nature of addiction has changed. When the house opened, most women were struggling with alcohol abuse.  

"The opioid crisis has hit Kateri hard, the same way it's hit the community in general, and we are not a drug-treatment agency," she said. St. Stephen's primary mission is to get the homeless into safe and permanent housing.

Residents are increasingly dealing with heroin addiction, and they have to find daily transportation to a clinic that provides them with methadone.

After months of deliberation, the board announced in early December that it would close the Kateri Residence at the end of June 2018. But in the wake of the announcement, numerous organizations have reached out to St. Stephens with ideas for how the program could be kept alive.

One of those is the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center.  Executive Director Patina Park said her nonprofit works on issues such as chemical dependency, domestic violence, sex trafficking and housing.

"We really try to do our best to address the harms caused by colonization — the loss of language, identity, land and the disruption to family that the boarding school era and child protection has done," she said.

Kateri Residence is one of the few programs that allow women to recover from addiction while keeping their children. Most programs, Park said, insist the children go into foster care for the duration. But this creates a dilemma when the mother gets out of treatment and tries to find safe, affordable housing and to reunite with her kids.

"They get caught in this gray area where they can't get the housing until the children are reunified," she said, "but they can't have their children reunified until there's housing."

Park says a program like Kateri, which allows mothers to keep their children while assuring the child's safety, is vital.

"And given that Minnesota right now has the highest out-of-home placement rate of Native American children, the need is even intensified more," she said. "To lose that kind of program, in my mind, would cause even more out-of-home placement and longer-term foster care for these children while parents may be doing really well, but can't find housing."

Park said she needs to raise $1 million so that her organization can take over the Kateri Residence. Approximately half of the funds would go toward making needed repairs to the building, and the other half toward staff and programming. Unlike St. Stephen's, the Minnesota Indian Women's Resource Center has access to tribal funding, but Park said it would take time to build it up.

Ultimately, the St. Stephens Board will decide how to proceed with the property, and who it wants to work with. Executive Director Dorfman said a planning committee will bring ideas before the board in early February, with a goal of transferring the property to the new owner at the end of June.