Shelter Assists ‘Hidden Minority’ : Social services: During its 20 years, United American Indian Involvement has helped thousands of Native Americans on Skid Row battle alcohol and drug abuse.

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On any given day, David Rambeau can peer through his second-story office window overlooking a trash-filled, urine-stained Skid Row back alley and point out a drug dealer.

“The drug dealers make a lot of money down here,” he said. “There are so many people using drugs down here because it’s easy to get. This area is really a pocket for drugs.”

Some of the drug dealers’ clients are Rambeau’s clients.

Rambeau, 47, a Paiute Indian, runs United American Indian Involvement Inc., which for 20 years has served as the only Skid Row walk-in crisis center for Native American drug and alcohol addicts.


Housed in a three-story building at 118 Winston St., the center started primarily as an effort to take Native Americans off Downtown streets and help them sober up.

Unlike other drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, all counselors at Indian Involvement are Native Americans and emphasize psychological and Indian spirituality methods to build substance abuse addicts’ self-esteem and cultural identity.

“That sets up a more comfortable relationship,” Rambeau said. “The person they see trying to help them is like them.”

The center also offers family and youth programs, such as camp trips and visits to Indian reservations and arts and crafts activities for adults and teen-agers.

Rambeau estimates that 3,000 Native Americans--out of 60,000 to 80,000 in Los Angeles County--are spread throughout the Central City, Hollywood and East Los Angeles areas, though they remain relatively hidden among other ethnic groups.

“I would say probably 80% of the people we serve are homeless . . . and have an alcohol or drug problem,” Rambeau said. “Probably another 15% are either living below or right about the poverty level and another 5% could be anywhere above that.”



Those numbers are small compared to the Latino and African American populations that suffer from similar problems and economic conditions.

Rambeau said he believes that government officials usually dish out more money to those ethnic groups and in turn have shortchanged funding for Native American programs such as United American Indian Involvement, which celebrated its 20th anniversary Saturday.

“When you’re the minority among the minorities, you’re not going to get the services (for funding),” Rambeau said. “It’s always been like that.”

The center, which five years ago cut back on meal services from twice a day to only once a day, has survived on an average budget of just under $300,000 a year in federal, state and county funds.

That amount, however, has only doubled from the $123,000 federal seed money United American Indian Involvement received to open in 1974.

“I don’t think there’s (ever) been enough continued funding,” said founder Baba Cooper, a mixed Dakota Black Feet and Oneida Indian who served as director for eight years. “They need a new building . . . one that can accommodate the needs down there.”



Cooper now produces 30- and 60-second public service announcements about Native Americans in the United States.

“We have a very small minority base, but we have a very huge (alcohol and drug) problem,” she said.

Cooper, then 23 years old and a recovering drug and alcohol addict, first saw the need to set up a program on Skid Row and give Native Americans a second chance at productive lives.

Back then, drug dealers were not as much of a presence as were the liquor stores near the Indian Involvement building, she recalled.

“Nobody wanted to go down into that community,” Cooper said. “It was considered untouchable, and nobody wanted to help the Indian people out there unless they got sober, and there was no means for them to get sober.”

Most Native Americans were unwilling to go to other non-Indian rehabilitation programs or homeless services, such as the Union Rescue Mission, because they didn’t feel comfortable “saying prayers, becoming a part of a religion they weren’t any part of,” Cooper said.


The Indian Involvement center offers 16 beds, men’s and women’s showers, a TV and laundry room, and has six staff members and a part-time cook, Rambeau said. It also provides clothing, transportation, and emergency housing and counseling services.


Last year, the center provided shelter for 104 people and served 12,727 meals.

One key change that the center has made concerns sobriety. Three years ago, Rambeau began requiring people to be drug- or alcohol-free for 30 days before they can receive help or come for noontime meals.

“We were providing a situation that would enable them to use drugs and drink,” he said. “They have to start taking responsibility for themselves.”

Although no figures are available as to exactly how many clients have sobered up through the center’s assistance, some have moved on and found stable jobs.

“It gave me a second chance in life,” said Andy Jones, 49, of Los Angeles.

Jones, a Tohono-O’Odham-Cherokee, came to the Indian Involvement center in 1982 and became sober after attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He now works as a clerk at Transamerica Occidental Life Insurance Co.


“I never forgot them,” he said. “When you’re on the streets and you’re homeless and somebody pays attention to you . . . somebody treats you like a human being, that means a lot.”


Charlotte Hungary, a 34-year-old Arapaho Shoshone, and her husband both live in Skid Row hotels and come to the center to eat lunch and wash their clothes.

“We go to our AA meetings and parenting meetings,” said Hungary, whose five children are in foster care. “It keeps us out of trouble.”

Rambeau said that, in addition to encouraging sobriety, the center emphasizes building strong relationships between parents and their children.

“Alcohol affects all parts of the family,” he said. “It’s not just one person who has a problem.

“If we’re going to have any kind of a future, we’re going to have to have the families involved in the future.”