Native American Connections excels at building beautiful and sustainable low-income housing and delivering behavioral health support to tribal Arizonans—and anyone else who comes to their door. As the light rail brings high-end development to the city's inner core, the longtime LISC partner remains a stalwart in helping transform the lives of people who might otherwise get left behind.
On a recent balmy Saturday, it was move-in day at Cedar Crossing, an airy, affordable housing complex near a light rail station in central Phoenix. Residents hefted boxes and mattresses past a garden planted with white flowers and desert trees, skirting the fire pit and playground, en route to sleek new apartments. Nothing about Cedar Crossing smacks of the grim, gray apartment blocks or shoddy construction typically associated with the term “affordable housing." In fact, this sort of high-quality complex is the only kind built by Native American Connections (NAC), a community development and behavioral health organization that has partnered with LISC for more than two decades.
Dede Yazzie Devine (pictured at top) has run NAC since 1979, when it was known as Indian Rehab, and has devoted her life to promoting social justice and wellness for the more than 100,000 Native Americans living in the Phoenix area. NAC owns and operates 18 housing and social service sites throughout central Phoenix, most of them clustered around the light rail line, in a neighborhood that has historically been a nexus of Indian services and institutions.
But the push for well-designed, affordable housing near jobs and human services constantly collides with a conservative legislature and the onslaught of for-profit developers, eager to cash in on millennial excitement about living in the city’s urban core. Only a few dozen of the 4,000 new apartments along the Central Avenue corridor are affordable. Most of them were built by NAC.
Housing on its own is not all that's needed; NAC strives to offer services and ammenities that support low-income clients seeking homes through the organization. “It’s one thing to build housing,” says Devine. “It’s another to build communities that are accessible to people in need. We’re delivering lunches for kids, we’re engaging parents, we have financial literacy and education. We’re looking at the needs of the whole community and at the same time trying to keep Phoenix from losing its way on affordability. ”
Next door to Cedar Crossing, beyond a pair of dome-shaped sweat lodges, a crew of carpenters installed a skylight in what will be the "talking circle" room at NAC’s new Patina Healing Center. Founded as a substance abuse rehab program for Native Americans, today NAC offers services to all who seek its help—from homeless youth and veterans to victims to sex trafficking and addicted mothers with their children. Patina is slated to open this summer, with 80 beds and an array of complimentary services, interweaving traditional practices, like drumming, smudging and story-telling, with conventional behavioral therapies.
Devine credits the success of her organization in part to the insight of her staff, many of whom are themselves former clients of NAC’s rehab programs. One such graduate-turned-employee is Ruben León, who works at Homebase, NAC's transitional housing community for homeless youth. León grew up in the tough west Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale and was barely 13 when he started smoking meth; by 18, he was a father; and by 23, he had lost custody of his daughter and burned every bridge he had ever crossed. “I would steal from whoever I could, and hurt whoever I had to, just to get high,” he recalls. “My family didn’t want me around.”
But while serving time on drug possession charges, León says, “I woke up.” He found his way to NAC, and to hear him tell it, the seas parted. “They were just so welcoming. I felt like I fit right in. I knew this was a place I could get better.”
A year later, with NAC’s help, León was sober, had saved $3,000 from working overtime at a restaurant job, and got his daughter back. That, he says, his eyes damp, “was a really, really good day. “
Today, León lives with his family—including his fiancé, a member of the Yaqui tribe whom he met at Homebase, and their toddler—in a light-drenched apartment in NAC’s Devine Legacy, an affordable housing community adjacent to the organization’s headquarters. He’d like to buy a house someday. For now, he works with youth who were right where he was just a few years ago. Says León, “I try to show them how much your life can change.”
To read more on LISC's work in Phoenix, see