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Thomas H. Begay, center, a Navajo Code Talker and Iwo Jima veteran, shows his scrapbook of photos from his time as a Marine to 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi, left, and I Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, right, at a sunset ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020.
Thomas H. Begay, center, a Navajo Code Talker and Iwo Jima veteran, shows his scrapbook of photos from his time as a Marine to 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. Robert F. Castellvi, left, and I Marine Expeditionary Force commander Lt. Gen. Joseph L. Osterman, right, at a sunset ceremony marking the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Iwo Jima at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2020. (Royce Dorman/U.S. Marine Corps)

(Tribune News Service) — The Navajo Nation has a proud history of military service.

But 12% of the Navajo veteran population, or about 1,000 people, experiences housing insecurity, according to the Navajo Nation Veterans Administration.

James Zwierlein, the agency's executive director, said the tribe's revamped veteran housing program aims to remedy that "unacceptable" statistic. The NNVA is about a month away from completing the first "modern hogan" prototype home for veterans in the reservation community of Tse Bonito in far western New Mexico.

"We're trying to bring a little bit of (Navajo) culture back to modern housing," Zwierlein said.

A traditional hogan is an octagonal structure often built out of logs and a dirt floor. The modern 1,200-square foot design will feature a central heating source and a domed roof with metal sheeting. The home will be insulated and have windows in each room.

"We're building these homes from the get-go to be ADA-compliant," Zwierlein said. "All doors are wheelchair-accessible, countertops are wheelchair-height, and the bathrooms have roll-in size showers."

The tribe has one manufacturing facility in Tse Bonito for the homes. Future facilities may expand into Shiprock, Fort Wingate and Tuba City, Arizona. Navajo-owned businesses are helping build the prototype.

Once production ramps up, veterans could move into a modern hogan as soon as 60 days after construction begins. Larger families could choose to add another octagonal unit to the home.

The agency has about 1,400 pending applications for the veteran housing, and Zwierlein expects that number to grow.

"When we talk about homelessness, we don't necessarily quantify that as an individual standing on a street corner with a sign," he said. "It's simply an individual without permanent residence, who may be moving around from family's homes to friends' couches."

Tiny home upgrades

What began as a sheltering project to prevent vulnerable Navajo residents from contracting and spreading COVID-19 will now help provide veterans with permanent housing.

The Home Depot Foundation has donated $135,000 to CORE (Community Organized Relief Effort) to upgrade 25 tiny homes for veterans across the New Mexico and Arizona regions of the Navajo Nation.

Money will help transform the buildings from emergency COVID isolation shelters into more sustainable homes, said Heather Prill, senior manager of the Home Depot Foundation.

Each insulated 120-square-foot tiny home CORE has built since June 2020 includes a bed, futon, bookshelf, solar lanterns, electrical outlets and a nearby outhouse.

"Our grant added more amenities like hotplates, blinds, space heaters, smoke and carbon monoxide alarms just to make sure that this could be a home for individuals," Prill said.

In January 2020, there were about 37,000 veterans experiencing homelessness in America, according to U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development data.

Aside from the Navajo project, the Home Depot Foundation has directed more than $1.8 million this year to veteran housing in Phoenix, Baltimore, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and Riverside, California.

The group has pledged to donate $500 million to veteran causes by 2025.

"It's so important to us to make sure that our veterans who served our country are housed," Prill said.

CORE will hire Navajo residents to construct the tiny homes.

(c)2021 the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.)

Visit the Albuquerque Journal (Albuquerque, N.M.) at www.abqjournal.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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