Allies use social media to reunite Native American families with those caught up in fake sober homes
It happened on a frozen winter day in December, near Shiprock, New Mexico, on the Navajo Nation.
Michelle Jones, a Navajo citizen and resident of Farmington, says her brother’s car broke down and he began hitchhiking, a common method of traveling across the nation’s largest tribal reservation.
After not too long, a black SUV pulled up next to her brother, who asked not to be identified in this story. We’ll refer to him as Andrew.
The people in the SUV rolled down the window and asked if he wanted a ride.
“He got into the SUV, and I guess while he was in the SUV, he went to sleep, and he woke up in Show Low, Arizona,” says Jones. “And so he just went along and just had them keep driving, I guess. And he ended up in Phoenix, Arizona. And when he ended up in Phoenix, Arizona, he was put in a home.”
Behavioral health group homes like the one Jones’s brother was taken to have been accused by the FBI, the Navajo Nation police department and the state of Arizona of scamming the state’s Medicaid agency as part of this process, which some say amounts to human trafficking.
For months, fraudulent sober living homes have been targeting tribal reservations across the western U.S., including the Navajo Nation and White Mountain Apache Tribe, coercing vulnerable people into coming to facilities in Phoenix.
The group homes then billed Arizona’s Medicaid program for treatments that were often never provided, while leaving those in their care in unsafe environments.
After he disappeared, Jones says she only sporadically heard from Andrew, who is originally from Blanding, Utah.
“I called (the) Shiprock police station,” she says. “And they said, ‘Okay, we have found the address of where he is. And we'll get back with you.’ So I kept on calling the police station for about a week or so. And I didn't hear from them after that. So I just started searching on my own, online, of where he was. And the (last) place that I called, they told me that he wasn't there anymore. And it was just from home to home.”
In the next three months, Jones says Andrew didn’t reach out. She and her brother’s parents became increasingly worried.
“I came across a web page with Reva Stewart, her web page was to help these homeless people on the streets,” she says. “I had posted on there, ‘I'm looking for my brother if you find him,’ and she actually reached out to me and said, ‘Show me what he looks like.’”
The website Jones mentioned is a Facebook group run by victims’ advocates like Reva Stewart, a member of the Navajo Nation who works to help Native American people like Andrew return home from the Phoenix area.
Stewart’s full-time job is at Drumbeat Indian Arts in downtown Phoenix, a Native American goods store.
In her spare time, she helps lead the activist group Stolen People, Stolen Benefits in assisting Native relatives who’ve been kicked out of these homes and who are now living on the streets.
Stewart became aware of fake sober living homes after her cousin was taken from New Mexico to a facility in Phoenix.
“So the first thing I always ask is, ‘Do you have a picture?’” says Stewart. “What's his full name, date of birth, so we can check the system. And then that’s where we start.”
But even with that information, Stewart couldn’t find any trace of where Andrew had ended up.
“We do outreach like every other day,” she says. “And it was really hot, I think it was like 116 or 118 (degrees) that day. So we said we’re gonna go out to Levine, and do outreach out there, because that's where a majority of these sober living homes are in that area.”
She and others in her group hand out cold Gatorade and sandwiches to unhoused people they come across, including any Native American people.
“There’s one area down there,” she says. “It’s like a little culvert. It’s like a grassy area right in front of the restaurants. And we were told there's usually Natives there. We’ve checked a couple of times. The first time we did see people, second time, not so many. But in that area – the day that we found (Andrew), he was lying there. And I just started running over there because he was lying down. But we didn’t know if he was okay.”
Once Stewart realized it was Andrew, she got Jones on the phone.
“(Reva) was like, ‘Oh, well, your sister's looking for you,’ and, ‘I want to get some help for you, what do you want to do?’” Jones says. “He said, ‘I want to come home, I want to go home.’ So Reva spoke and said, ‘Well, I can get you a bus ticket to come home,’ and he was so happy after he heard that he could come home again. I could hear them in the background, and (Andrew) started to cry, and I was crying on the phone because I could hear his voice, and everybody in the background was crying.”
They bought Andrew a bus ticket to Gallup, where Jones and her parents were waiting for him.
“I asked him, ‘What about the homes?’ and he said ‘Well, they're shutting down those homes, we had no place to go,’” she says.
In May, Governor of Arizona Katie Hobbs announced the state would crack down on these fraudulent facilities in coordination with the Navajo Nation, which launched an operation to return Navajo citizens from Phoenix to their communities.
Operation Rainbow Bridge consists of a team of Navajo Nation police officers who have been searching the city for displaced Navajo people who might need a way to get home.
However, for many families, informal networks like Stewart’s Facebook page have yielded the quickest results.
Since many of these fraudulent sober living facilities are now being shut down, Stewart says she’s noticed an increase in the number of unsheltered Native American people living on the streets of Phoenix who have needed bus fare to return home.
“We are going to see more people, more of our relatives that are going to be unsheltered,” she says. “And we still have our GoFundMe, we exhausted that. We've exhausted our supplies for outreach. We literally exhausted that. So we're completely out. All we can do right now is hand out water and utilize (calling) 2-1-1, option 7.”
Stewart says she and her group have arranged transportation for tribal citizens caught up in this system from as far as the Blackfeet Nation in Montana and the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe in southwest Colorado.
These days, most of the people she encounters are Navajo Nation or White Mountain Apache tribal members.
She says that despite the government’s crackdown, she still sees recruiters cruising the streets of Phoenix, looking for unhoused Native people.
“It is still happening,” she says. “I could go outside and talk to some unsheltered relatives. I always tell them if you're close to Drumbeat, come inside, get some water. So they come and let me know they need water, and so I’ll go walk outside with them, talk to them, ask if they're doing okay. And (one day) as we were standing outside, a car pulls up in the middle of the median between the store and PIMC, (Phoenix Indian Medical Center) in the median, and starts gesturing to them, ‘Do you guys want to go with me?’ And I looked at him, I was like, ‘Are you serious?’ And I wasn't nice about it.”
For Stewart, who’s been an advocate on this issue for months, regular run-ins like this are confounding.
“Why are we still here?” she says. “Why are we still seeing so many of our people being recruited, so many of our people still dying in these homes? So many, and then you get their obituary, and it says, 'Oh, it was an accidental death.' You know, you were in a sober living home. How was it accidental that you overdosed on alcohol or fentanyl?”
In the meantime, Stewart continues to raise questions about predatory sober living homes in the Phoenix area and the various official responses to the crisis.
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