- Associated Press - Friday, August 28, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - A liaison has been named to bridge the gap between New Mexico’s largest city, the Navajo Nation and other tribal communities as they work to address chronic homelessness among Native Americans.

The appointment of community health worker Dawn Begay was announced Friday as Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and other officials rolled out some of the recommendations of a special task force that has been working over the past year to develop culturally relevant solutions.

The group’s work started in the wake of the beating deaths of two homeless Navajo men in a vacant lot on Albuquerque’s southwest side in 2014.

While Albuquerque has seen success with its Heading Home program and other initiatives aimed at helping those on the street who have substance abuse problems or mental health issues, officials say more training is needed to connect with Native Americans.

Begay, a Navajo who works as a lead caseworker at First Nations Community HealthSource in Albuquerque, said she speaks with homeless families every day as part of her job.

“I get to hear their struggles, their stories and also their accomplishments and one thing I’ve really learned is that homelessness is a manifestation of extreme poverty,” she said. “I’ve also learned that Native Americans experience not only disproportionate rates of poverty but also of violence and behavioral health disorders.”

Begay said it will be her responsibility to create awareness among government and tribal officials of the true picture of what is happening to those Native Americans who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.

Aside from Begay coordinating efforts, the task force called on the city to implement cultural competency training for dozens of employees - something the mayor said he was willing to do and participate in.

The training was among the things requested by a coalition of New Mexico pueblo governors who consulted with the task force.

The city also is awarding $300,000 to First Nations Community HealthSource to create a wellness center that will provide food, job training and health care.

Berry said he hopes the work the task force has been doing sets the stage for changes that could have effects across New Mexico and in neighboring Arizona, which encompasses part of the Navajo Nation.

“If you look at why New Mexico and why Albuquerque are beautiful, it’s our diversity,” Berry said. “That diversity comes with blessings and it comes with challenges, so I think we have a real chance now to show some leadership and take that diversity and put it to work for all of us.”


Follow Susan Montoya Bryan on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/susanmbryanNM

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