Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series of stories about Indigenous people living and working in the Moab area.
As Ernestine Agrillo cooks on the stove in the trailer she rents on Walnut Lane, she pulls the stove’s only knob off the range, leaving the tip of the metal gas valve exposed.
“This stove only has this one knob,” she says as she pushes the knob onto a different valve. “I have to use just the one knob and move it around to stick it on each burner to be able to turn on the burners on the stove.”
Agrillo is Navajo and says she has lived and worked in Moab “on and off” for all of her life.
“My mother lived here and my father lived on the reservation, so I would go back and forth,” she says.
After high school and a time in college, she began living in Moab full time.
The trailer where she now lives with her husband and two small children on Walnut Lane is one of dozens sitting on about 3 acres of land that were set up during the uranium boom in the 1950s.
It’s not the first, or only, place where she has lived in Moab.
“It’s very hard to get into housing and it’s very hard to get an estimate of how much you would be needing to even live here in Moab,” she says.
The trailer’s windows, the wallpaper and a ventilation fan in the kitchen, the brown faux wood paneling on the walls are original and show its age.
“It’s pretty old,” Agrillo says. The floor sinks as she avoids stepping on a hole in the floor in front of the stove and the refrigerator. Aside from the knobs on the stove missing, she says the appliances are in working condition.
A longtime Moab family owned the trailer park for decades, until 2018, when it was listed for $1.99 million and bought by the City of Moab. Agrillo and other residents at the trailer park will one day be temporarily displaced as the city moves forward on a plan that will eventually replace the trailers with a multi-unit apartment development. The city says its new development will be affordable to the residents already living in the trailer park, but Agrillo says she hasn’t heard from anyone at the city about its plans.
Moab City Senior Projects Manager Tracey Dutson recently told the Moab Sun News that construction of an affordable, mixed-income 80-unit rental development will begin in mid-2020 and be completed in 2021.
In the meantime, Agrillo says she is thankful for the trailer that she lives in now because it means that unlike other Indigenous people she knows living and working in Moab, she doesn’t have to live in a tent or in a car with her children.
“Affordable housing to me means that it’s something I can live with and a budget that I can be able to pay and not stress out on having to say, ‘Hey, we got to pay rent and get this done, but we won’t have enough for our groceries, we won’t have enough for our babies’ diapers and formula,’” she says. “That’s what I think affordable housing is.”
A LONG, HARD HOUSING JOURNEY IN MOAB
“I’ve been on a long journey of finding my own living and my own space,” she says.
A journey in Moab, she says, that has been ongoing since 2013.
In the beginning she says she slept on a family member’s couch and floor. Then she lived in a room at a motel until she was told the motel “didn’t have anymore room for the next month,” so she moved into a camper. She says she lived “everywhere” in the camper for two and a half years, staying in her mother’s yard and at Dowd Flats RV Park for a while.
Dowd Flats RV Park, a longtime business south of Moab, was the only affordable park for her, she says, and unlike some of the other places in Moab where she has applied to live, it was welcoming to Indigenous people like her.
Helen Mitten is the manager at Dowd Flats. She has been in Moab since 1952 and “has seen it all,” she says, including “a lot” of Indigenous families temporarily living in RVs and campers as they search for housing.
“It’s a necessity to have somewhere that people can land. They didn’t stay forever, but it’s a stepping stone to a better place,” she says. “But I do wish that Moab would do something about the housing problem. Instead of 60 hotels, which we don’t really need, they should look to supplying housing for the Indigenous people that need help. We have found that we are the only park that did that.”
Agrillo says she has “looked everywhere for housing” in Moab.
“I’ve applied for apartments, renting, I’ve done all the applications and I’ve just never had any luck or call backs on it,” she says.
Part of the reason, she says, is her race. She says that when people realize she’s a Native American applying for housing, they don’t call her back.
But then in the spring of 2016, when she was eight months pregnant, she was offered a rental trailer at the Walnut Lane trailer park. Her son was born the following month.
“I finally got into a home to where I could be able to raise my family,” she says. “You get put on wait lists. You constantly do applications and the way things are here, it’s very hard to get in to housing due to money.”
LOW WAGES AT RESTAURANTS AND HOTELS
Agrillo and her husband’s jobs in Moab “pay the minimum,” she says.
Agrillo works at a fast-food restaurant and her husband works at a hotel. She goes to work in the morning and he works at night so that someone is always home with the children because she says child care is “very hard to find” in Moab. If the family did pay someone for child care, the hourly rate for child care for both of her children is more than what she makes in an hour at her job.
“Now, being a mother working with my job, each paycheck I make about $460 every two weeks,” she says, “and that’s not even something we can live on due to the prices of homes because you have groceries to buy, you have diapers to buy, you have clothing, wipes — all these other things that you need for your family and your home, and it is not enough to survive on living here in Moab.”
She says she hopes the community will realize that the “people who live in the community need housing to live here, to be able to work here.”
“A lot of us people, we like Moab, we grew up here in Moab and we want to stay in Moab and grow our family here in Moab, but it’s just so hard to have a steady living for our family to raise,” she says.
SUPPORT FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLE IN MOAB
“I hope the community can make that seen, that there are still people that lived here and are still living here to raise their family to get somewhere, and we can have affordable homes to live in,” she says, “because right now I think that’s our no. 1 problem, is no housing for the majority of people that live here in Moab.”
Local nonprofits such as the Moab Valley Multicultural Center (MVMC), Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center and Moab Solutions are stepping up to solve the problem and are working to help Indigenous people living and working in the Moab area.
“The multicultural center has increasingly seen people coming to the center looking for housing solutions, including several who identify as Native or Indigenous,” says Rhiana Medina, MVMC’s executive director. “We have interacted with several clients coming to Moab from the four corners area that end up living in their vehicles or camping due to the affordable housing shortage.”
Medina says MVMC is actively working with Grand County Local Homeless Coordinating Committee and state homelessness committees to increase the inventory of emergency housing and awareness around homelessness in the Moab community.
Seekhaven Family Crisis and Resource Center is now offering programs to unite and educate Native people and non-native people in the community.
One program is called the Nourishing Traditions Indigenous Gathering Circle. The gathering circle is designed solely for Native people in the Moab area and it meets every first Thursday of the month at the Youth Garden Project. The gathering circle was founded and is organized by Kristen Marsh, an advocate for victims at Seekhaven. Separate from Seekhaven, Marsh is spending her time working on creating a nonprofit of her own to build a traditional hogan — a rounded building used for gathering — for Indigenous people. The hogan is in the early planning stages in Moab.
At the Nourishing Traditions Indigenous Gathering Circle on May 2, Agrillo builds a fire in one of the grills on the patio at the Youth Garden Project where a dinner is being prepared. Her daughter scoots across the patio in a walker and her son plays with the other children in the yard. She talks about the importance of teaching the Native youth about traditional customs, and about how her living conditions, her employment and housing factors into her lifestyle.
“I’ve been here ever since I was pregnant with my son,” she says. “Now I got my daughter, so like what has changed? Not really a whole lot.”
She talks about the Native American people camping illegally inside city limits or living in their cars.
“What else are we going to do?” she asks rhetorically. “I’m just hoping that more people here in the community realize that we are trying to make an impact within our community, that we are here, and we are making a stand to let everyone know we are here.”
Sara Melnicoff, the executive director at Moab Solutions, is assisting a handful of Indigenous people on May 21. She says one call came from two Indigenous women who are working in Moab, but are sleeping in their car.
“It is a very tricky problem as people want to come here to earn money, yet have no affordable place to stay,” Melnicoff says. She refers the two women to the hostel in Moab as a temporary solution for their housing.
“I wish we had a ‘Worker’s Hostel’ which could provide accommodations for seasonal workers at an affordable rate,” Melnicoff says. “Many of these folks are cleaning at the hotels and motels, so their work is vitally important.”
Earlier in the day, Melnicoff says she assisted a Native couple with a child who have been approved for an apartment in Moab but need help with a deposit.
Agrillo says she hopes other Native people will come to be a part of the gathering circle.
“All Indigenous tribes, just come on out and enjoy our teachings and our talking,” she says.