(Photos: Clarrie Feinstein)

One could easily pass the unassuming building at 39 Eldridge Street, on an uncommonly quiet side-street in Chinatown, without knowing it’s home to a New York institution. But take the tiny elevator to the fourth floor and you’ll find a bare-bones space with an L-shaped sofa, conference table and kitchen. A welcome sign greets newcomers and regulars to the American Indian Community House (AICH), a place to gather, educate and learn.

After two years here, the AICH is now looking for a new home. In 2017, the community center received abrupt notice from the Indian Health Services — a federal agency that provides basic healthcare services to the American Indian population across the United States — that all funding was cut.

For 50 years, AICH has provided social services, job placement assistance, recreational programming and basic medical services and referrals for American Indians, 990 reports show. Without Indian Health Service’s annual support of $473,924, it’s left with $130,724 plus an additional $119,483 in outside contributions of fundraisers and government grants. That revenue provides for just half the costs needed to support programming. The staff, which had consisted of 20 paid employees, has been reduced to 13 volunteers.

As a result, the number of visitors to the center has dropped off, said Richard Chavolla, the Board Chair of AICH. “We could no longer have people there from a regular basis. We had to reduce hours with our staff drastically,” he told us. “When the new administration came into power, we weren’t able to satisfy them or meet certain criteria needed. So, they would not renew our funding.”

While Chavolla believes the stricter funding requirements for the Indian Health Services coincides conveniently with President Trump’s inauguration, Indian Health Services stated AICH did not meet the standards of “compliance and satisfactory performance” – but could not specify the exact violations AICH committed. This information can only be obtained via a Freedom of Information request, which is still pending.

In 2017, Ben Geboe, AICH’s interim executive director, acknowledged to Indian Country Today that “AICH had some troublesome times in the past concerning the program’s finances and mistakes by management. However, in the past two years, AICH has made substantial changes to its management team and Board of Trustees.” The “troublesome times,” Indian Country Today reported, included the use of payroll to cover rent and utilities, as well as the underreporting of clients. Geboe attributed that lapse to IHS’s “faulty” patient management system and “a lack of IHS technical assistance” for it.

Bedford + Bowery reached out to Chavolla for comment and he referred back to Geboe’s earlier statement.

Staff member Sheldon Raymore began working at AICH in 2015 and has witnessed firsthand how the community center went from a fully-funded NGO to a completely volunteer-run organization. “It was a really big let-down and put us in crisis mode,” said Raymore. “Back in 2016, we still had the tele-behavioral program. It was a Skype therapy service that we hosted at the community population in the city. We had the weekly sobriety support group – Wellbriety – and we had the women’s group and HIV program. But soon after, we lost that funding.”

Indian Health Services has provided the majority of funding, allowing for basic medical check-ups, mental health services, substance abuse counseling, insurance referrals and subsidized care.

Most importantly, the center serves approximately 27,000 out of the 111,750 American Indians in the city – the largest urban American Indian population in the United States, according to the 2010 Census.

Staff volunteer Phillip Stands says the community house had him fill out a form for his medical history and focused in on his needs for optical and dental care. All expenses were covered for his optometrist appointment, glasses prescription, and frame. “I dropped off my prescription to the lens maker and came back within a week to pick them up.” Stands has a lazy eye, making social interactions difficult without glasses. “It helped me socially,” says Stands. “But I lost my glasses after the cuts were made and now I can’t afford new ones.”

While the health services offered standard medical care, it was intertwined with American Indian teachings and what the Wellness Director at New York City Council, Inc. Phoebe Mills-Cager, calls “culturally relevant services.”  

For example, Wellbriety meetings, which exist in multiple chapters across the U.S., offer a 12-step program, similar to AA meetings. But the meetings include Native prayer, smudging ceremony – a cleaning smoke bath used to purify the body and soul – or sometimes offer their respective Native languages. “It becomes a more meaningful process,” says Mills-Cager. “Just having Native people with you along the way makes a huge difference.”

Since Indian Health Services announced the budget cuts in June 2017, Mills-Cager has been fighting to have IHS fund the New York City Council Inc. – a social service center similar to AICH – so the Native community can have their health services back. In October, the funding was granted.

“These services are lifesaving for Native Americans,” Mills-Cager says. “A lot of evidence supports culturally relevant services make a big difference. Because one of the biggest barriers for Native people in attaining services is the treatment is not geared towards our understanding of health and wellness.”

As for AICH, the center is continuing with recreational programming and more arts initiatives, by promoting musicians, artisans and performers, as they try to find a new home. “The community house used to be a generator of new initiatives,” says Interim Executive Director Curtis Harris-Davia. “Whether it was around healthcare or whether it was around job development, or activist initiatives. It was a busy, busy place.”

When he first arrived in 1989, looking for a job and searching for his community in the sprawling metropolis, AICH offered a sense of belonging. “You know, I wish I wasn’t here,” says Harris-Davia. “I just didn’t expect [AICH] to be challenged as much as it is today. We’re basically starting from scratch.”

But for staff volunteer Stands, the funding cuts have created a greater sense of commitment to the survival of AICH.  “You know, when I saw that people wanted to stay and volunteer their time, I saw a community coming together and getting involved,” says Stands. “I went from being jaded to having a sense of hope.”