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‘Tiny homes’ address pandemic, housing on Navajo, Apache land

A Navajo family near Kayenta, outside a shelter built by CORE to prevent COVID-19 spread in multigenerational households. (Courtesy Nilaya Sabnis)

Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal

Crowded homes, limited water and electricity, and an underfunded health system have fueled COVID-19 infections in the Southwest’s tribal communities.

To help tackle these inequities, Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, builds small shelters on Navajo and White Mountain Apache homesites to prevent vulnerable residents from contracting and spreading the virus.

The 120-square-foot “tiny homes” are an emergency pandemic response and a longer-term housing solution, said Shira Goldstein, CORE’s program director for the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Reservation.

“We’re responding week by week, listening to what the Indian Health Service needs and working within the government system to provide resources and curb the spread of COVID on the Navajo Nation,” Goldstein said. “But we’re also building something that creates resilience and doesn’t rely on us being here pumping resources in every single week to address the infrastructure gaps.”

The organization has completed 125 of 350 shelters on tribal lands. Work on the New Mexico side of the Navajo Nation will begin in May.

CORE works with the IHS, Navajo Community Health Representatives, and Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health to identify people who live in crowded homes with older family members who have underlying health conditions.

Angus Pollard, CORE’s shelter program manager, said they adopted COVID-19 prevention guidance from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine to suit the needs of Navajo residents.

“A person may not be able to shelter in place because they’re coming and going from the home as a first responder, or hauling water, or hay or wood, or going to dialysis appointments,” Pollard said. “They don’t want to bring the virus back to their vulnerable family members.”

Each dwelling is insulated and has a bed, futon, bookshelf, electrical outlets, solar lanterns and a nearby outhouse.

Shelters are equipped with a three- to four-month supply of masks, bleach, laundry soap, dish soap, toilet paper and cleaning wipes, as well as educational materials for how to prevent household spread of COVID-19.

“Since building these shelters, we’ve seen COVID come into the household, and it did not spread to the person that was trying to be shielded,” Pollard said. “It has worked in saving people’s lives.”

CORE enlists local out-of-work carpenters, painters and plumbers to build about 15 shelters each week. Each shelter and outhouse costs about $6,000 for materials and labor and takes two days to build.

The organization received a $30 million donation from Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey last year for its national pandemic response efforts.

Local construction workers with CORE build a 120-square-foot shelter for a Navajo family. (Courtesy Nilaya Sabnis)

The tiny home doors face east, as is Navajo tradition. Shelters will remain on the homesites after the pandemic is over.

“We want the local government and people to know we’re here for the long term,” Goldstein said. “We’re creating sustainable, safe homes. It’s become more of a preventive public health strategy rather than a reactionary response.”

As of Wednesday, a total of 29,794 Navajo residents have contracted the COVID-19 virus, and 1,187 people have died from the disease.

Community Organized Relief Effort, or CORE, has built about 125 shelters on the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Reservation to help prevent household spread of COVID-19. (Courtesy Nilaya Sabnis)

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