Arts / Faith and Humanities / People of SU

A Safe Place to Land

Written by Allison Nitch

November 3, 2022

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

Derrick Belgarde, ’13, ’15 MPA, and his team strive to support a mission of providing sacred space to nurture, affirm and strengthen the spirit of urban Native people.

Chief Seattle Club (CSC) is a Native-led housing and human services agency dedicated to physically and spiritually supporting American Indian and Alaska Native people. Guided by Executive Director Derrick Belgarde, ’13, ’15 MPA, CSC embraces the Indigenous cultures, languages and traditions of its members as the primary method for healing and transformation. 

Belgarde began his CSC career as program manager in 2015, when the club had 10 employees. He moved on to deputy director in 2017 and since becoming executive director in 2021, he’s now leading more than 80 team members. 

Each service at CSC is culturally appropriate and tailored for the marginalized Native community. Among its many programs, CSC focuses on homelessness, permanent housing solutions, domestic violence and sexual assault support, legal services, Native art job training and re-entry assistance for those recently released from prison. 

After earning his associate’s degree, Belgarde chose to transfer to Seattle University knowing he wanted to dedicate his career toward nonprofit and social justice work. SU was the right fit on account of its mission to educate the whole person. “It’s not just about building careers—it’s also about social justice and building a humane and just world,” says Belgarde, who remains active with the university as an alum, serving on the College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Leadership Council and supporting the Indigenous Peoples Institute.

More than Home

In February 2022, CSC achieved a major milestone of opening its first affordable housing building in Pioneer Square named a?ál?al, “home” in the Lushootseed language. 

Belgarde explains CSC’s landmark housing facility, consisting of 80 studio apartments, took a lot of perseverance. The fact that few seemed to believe in their vision didn’t stop them as Belgarde and his predecessor refused to take no for an answer. 

“We just kept going and had one heck of a capital campaign that raised a lot of money. We’ve done a good job of marketing the Native disparity and the Native issues that have been neglected for decades and pushed it on [both] the public agenda and mindset,” he says. 

An enrolled member of the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians of Oregon and the Chippewa-Cree from Rocky Boy Montana, Belgarde says “Native Americans are the least likely to get support services from state offices, government offices or to get housing assistance, food stamps, etc.” He attributes this to established administrative processes. “Administration is like a science now—it might make sense to westernized thinkers, but westernized and colonized systems impact the well-being of Native Americans.” 

As noted on the CSC website, Native Americans face the highest poverty rate of any racial group in King County. Of the 12,000 homeless people in King County, more than 15 percent are American Indian or Alaskan Native. Belgarde sheds light on why there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to providing homelessness resources and support. 

“The streets eat people alive,” says Belgarde. “Our Native community has been through so much for 500 years that PTSD is off the charts. The trauma is just unimaginable and our Native community, who is suffering the most, aren’t going to reach out to non-Native providers.” 

Some established approaches for fighting homelessness—like providing a set number of shelter beds and ushering people in—“don’t take the Native culture into consideration.” 

“Natives don’t go to a shelter” where they’re the only one among a large group, explains Belgarde. “They’re not going to feel safe or welcomed. They’re going to feel threatened … disrespected and that their culture is disrespected by everything they see in the shelter.” 

To access “those hard-to-reach communities like mine, you have to offer specific services. That requires a place where you can build trust, friendships and relationships, then you start working on the healing,” says Belgarde. 

Healing from Within

With a goal of providing trauma-informed services that center healing, safety and community, CSC launched its first domestic violence and sexual assault program in 2020. 

While there were efforts of outside providers offering free support at CSC, it was difficult to create changes due to challenges around relating to the chronically homeless, female-identifying members. When it comes to offering support in this area, Belgarde notes this is a totally different intersectionality.

“When you’re working with somebody who is chronically on the streets, every meeting you have is going to be like a first meeting all over again,” he says. 

“After seeing our women come into CSC battered and bruised,” Belgarde and his staff knew they needed to develop their own services, despite being up against the issue of victims refusing to talk out of fear of abuser retaliation. They understood the best approach was to hire someone internally with an understanding of chronic homelessness and relationship building. 

“That’s what is really needed, because women out there on the streets—not just of the Native community but all women living on the streets—are sexually and physically assaulted more frequently, often by their own partner," Belgarde explains. And typically, victims feel that they have no choice but to stay with these partners, as they offer protection from random assaults. 

Launching this new program during the start of the pandemic has prevented full utilization of the model CSC developed, but Belgarde is hopeful this changes once the pandemic ceases. 

Part of what keeps Belgarde inspired is witnessing the transformation of CSC members, individuals who enter “raw from the streets,” homeless for so long they’ve become withdrawn, disassociated and unable to speak in coherent sentences. He sees them begin to bloom after entering CSC’s shelter or long-term placement facility. There they can talk with other Native people and the layers slowly chip away by bringing people together and building community, making them feel a sense of belonging and that they’re cared for and loved. 

All of this motivates Belgarde, who was recently named as one of nine members of the Seattle City Council's first Indigenous Advisory Council. 

“Even though they’re suffering … when I see my people, there’s part of me that is mesmerized by their strength and their humor,” he says. “We’re going to continue building housing and we’re going to stabilize our community. It’s coming. It’s just a matter of when.”

Read more stories like this in the fall/winter edition of Seattle University Magazine.