Casino cash does little for Tohono O'odham social needs

By Cathalena E. Burch and Becky Pallack
Tucson, Arizona (AP) 11-07

The Archie Hendricks Sr. Skilled Nursing Facility springs out of nowhere on a remote stretch of Federal Route 15, south of the Tohono O’odham capital.

The 5-year-old, 60-bed center has cared for 200 elderly tribal members, many of whom had been away from home in urban senior centers.

“It’s nice to be here with my own people,” said Josephine Yesk, 87, who moved from the Phoenix area earlier this year.

The senior center fixed one of the Tohono O’odham Nation’s pressing problems – caring for its elders. But the bigger problem – caring for the young – cannot be solved so easily. People 65 or older make up 7 percent of the nation’s 28,000 members, whereas those 21 and younger make up nearly a quarter.

The tribe spent $14 million of its gaming proceeds to build the nursing home and spends $5 million annually to run it – a small fraction of the hundreds of millions of dollars gaming has brought since the tribe opened its first casino 14 years ago.

Tribal officials won’t say how much money their casinos generate – they are not subject to the same public-records laws as state and local governments. But an Arizona Daily Star analysis based on the O’odham’s mandatory contributions to local agencies and governments, as well as other financial information, estimates the tribe grossed $196 million from gaming last year.

The shortfalls are most visible in the struggles of young tribal members, who increasingly are turning to gangs to fill their free time. The tribe invested $30 million nearly two years ago to build five youth centers to give young people an alternative to gangs, but there’s no telling yet whether they’ve made a difference.

Dropout rates at the tribe’s Baboquivari High School are spiraling – up to 26 percent in 2005-06 from just under 16 percent five years earlier – cutting into the pool of applicants for the tribe’s $6 million yearly college scholarship program.

Those who do achieve a college or trade education often return to jobs that pay too little to lift them out of the poverty that has plagued the tribe for generations.

“A lot of us on the nation have degrees, but there’s no jobs in our fields,” said Delia Lopez, staff dietitian at the nursing home and the wife of Vice Chairman Isidro B. Lopez. She said her husband’s administration is addressing the problem.

Stephen Folson went through the tribe’s scholarship program and earned a trade-school auto mechanic’s certificate only to discover he couldn’t land a job with his newfound skills.

The father of three young boys ended up in an entry-level job at the nation’s radio station making $21,000 a year, about $2,000 under the federal poverty level for his family of five.

“I’m sticking with this because I like this job,” said Folson, 22, who is a technician and programmer for the station. “Living on the rez right now is best for us. We have land and a house, and the nation is helping us.”

Unemployment on the nation has yo-yoed in recent years from a high of 25 percent in 2002 to a low of 14 percent in 1998, Arizona Department of Economic Security figures show. Today, it’s just under 18 percent – nearly five times the Tucson rate. A quarter of the O’odham rely on some form of state welfare, such as food stamps or subsidized health care.

The nation’s biggest employer is its casinos, including the just-opened Desert Diamond-Nogales Highway. The three facilities employ 1,300 people in all – about 25 percent of them O’odham and another 10 percent from other tribes, said Desert Diamond Casino CEO Scott Sirois. The nation employs around 1,200 others, from secretaries and janitors to schoolteachers and nurses.

Few of the jobs available appeal to the highest-skilled tribal members. The nation, by tribal Chairman Ned Norris Jr.’s admission, is sorely behind the times in everything from technology to infrastructure.

He points to the nation’s 50-plus-year-old hospital in Sells, with its unsophisticated and inadequate equipment, as emblematic of the problem.

“That’s where we deliver our medical services,” he said. “We’re expecting 21st-century doctors to come into that antiquated system and apply their skills there. This happens way too often that our young O’odham go to college and earn their degrees. But what are they coming back to?”

Casino money so far has not been used for housing, which is a major issue on the 2.8 million-acre reservation.

Norris is somber when he relates that 500 tribal members – young and old – need homes.

Much of the nation’s housing stock is old and run-down, from 1970s Department of Housing and Urban Development tract ranch homes to the traditional thatched-roof, dirt-floor homes that dot the nation.

Joe Antone, 71, who is receiving treatment at the nursing home, lived in one of those traditional homes in the village of Covered Wells for 20 years. Over the years, his adobe structure has suffered the trials of time and the elements; it needs some fixing before he can move home, and the tribe is helping, Antone said through a translator.

Few others will get similar help. The nation is winding down a federally funded program that fixed more than 100 homes, Norris said. Instead it hopes to use gaming revenues to build new homes.

Norris is carrying on former Chairwoman Vivian Juan-Saunders’ efforts to improve the school system.

The nation’s scholarship program also is making strides: It has served thousands of people since it was instituted in 1995. Before gaming, the tribe had fewer than 250 enrolled members who went to college or trade schools.

“We had our first Stanford law school graduate three years ago. We just had our first M.D.,” Norris said with pride.

The O’odham realized early on that gaming could be their cure, but not their cure-all.

Deciding what came first has been time-consuming and painful; deciding what comes next is equally daunting given the tribe’s political hurdles and geography, Norris said:

“There’s a lot yet to be done.”

Information from: Arizona Daily Star,