WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Representative Ann Kirkpatrick today announced a major step forward in her fight on behalf of Native American Veterans. The Indian Veterans Housing Opportunity Act, which Rep. Kirkpatrick introduced last year and pushed through the House of Representatives in June, has unanimously passed through the Senate and can now be enacted into law. The legislation will ensure that disabled Native Veterans, their families and their survivors are not denied support through the Native American Housing Assistance and Self-Determination Act (NAHASDA) due to their military service.
NAHASDA was passed in 1996 to allow tribal communities to more easily access housing grants by providing support to families who make less than 80 percent of the median income of their area. While the law has helped folks in Indian Country, due to an oversight it counts Veterans disability or survivor benefits as income. As a result, some former service members who receive those benefits are made ineligible for housing assistance that they badly need.
H.R. 3553 fixes this flaw by specifically excluding Veterans benefits from the definition of income, finally correcting a problem that has disadvantaged thousands of Native American Veterans and their families. Over 20 percent of folks in Indian Country have served in the military.
"Native Americans have made incredible sacrifices to keep our country safe, and it is unacceptable that Native Veterans and their families have been unable to receive the benefits they have earned for so many years," said Congresswoman Kirkpatrick. "We cannot let our Nation's heroes be punished for their service to our country. Enacting this bill into law will finally right this wrong."
The Navajo Housing Authority first brought this issue in NAHASDA to Rep. Kirkpatrick's attention, and as a member of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs she has made fixing it a key part of her efforts to make the voices of Indian Country heard in Washington. In April, the Congresswoman brought a Congressional delegation to Window Rock for a field hearing, ensuring that members of Greater Arizona's tribes had the opportunity to share their concerns with Washington in their own words and discuss in detail the obstacles disabled Indian Veterans and survivors have continued to face as a result of this decade-old problem.
"Congresswoman Kirkpatrick's leadership on this bill will make a huge difference for disabled Native Veterans and also for the families that are left behind when a soldier, sailor or airman gives the ultimate sacrifice," said Aneva Yazzie, CEO of the Navajo Housing Authority. "Thanks to Ann Kirkpatrick, Congress stepped up and did the right thing with this bill."
"As a Native Veteran myself, I am proud of Representative Kirkpatrick's work on this bill," said Leonard Teller, Chairman of the Navajo Housing Authority Board of Commissioners. "We are very lucky to have her working for us in Congress."
"The Navajo Housing Authority and other leaders in the Veterans, tribal and housing communities have fought long and hard to get this done, and I am honored to have had the chance to stand with them and make their voices heard," said Rep. Kirkpatrick. "The passage of the Indian Veterans Housing Opportunity Act is a great victory for Indian Country and a critical step in the ongoing struggle to make Washington keep its promises to our military men and women."
As the daughter and niece of Veterans, Rep. Kirkpatrick has been pushing hard to make Washington meet its obligations to America's heroes. She has also been a champion for the tribes in representing the largest Native American population of any congressional district in the country, and meeting the unique needs of Veterans living on tribal lands has naturally been a particular focus.
In addition to this legislation, she is demanding that the Bureau of Indian Affairs correct a similar problem with the Housing Improvement Program that is also posing challenges for Native Veterans. She has also introduced the Rural American Indian Veterans Health Care Improvement Act to make it easier for them to access quality health care options. As recognition of her commitment to tribal communities, she was recently allowed the honor of giving the keynote speech at the first inaugural Navajo Housing Summit.