By Sarah Nagem
Bridget McNutt was 18 when she left Robeson County for the Army. Nearly two decades later, after traveling the world and serving in battle-torn Iraq, her home in southeastern North Carolina was foreign to her.
As she worked to manage her post-traumatic stress disorder, McNutt helped others. She held jobs at the local Veterans Affairs office and a drug rehabilitation facility. But when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, she said, she struggled to get her own medical needs met.
On and off for about a year, McNutt and her teenage daughter hunkered down in a camper, wrestling trauma after trauma that came their way. Then, she said, a fellow veteran told her about a housing program through the Lumbee Native American tribe.
Two weeks later, in May, the 46-year-old and her daughter moved into Warriors’ Way, a new development of homes for Lumbee members who are military veterans. There, in a gated community with well-manicured lawns and nothing to obstruct her view of who’s coming and going, McNutt finally feels safe again.
“To be around battle buddies is even more amazing, because we’re still a family,” she said. “This is like being in Iraq. You have a buddy in front of you, behind you, beside you, and you take care of everybody.”
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Warriors’ Way is one of several housing developments operated by the Lumbees, whose 60,000 members make up the largest Native American tribe east of the Mississippi River. While some projects cater to veterans like McNutt, others are designed for low-income tribal elders or families who might not otherwise have access to safe and sanitary homes.
This year, the Lumbees will receive an additional $4 million in federal money for its robust housing program, which some say serves as an example for other tribes across the country that want to create affordable homes for their members.
Tribal Chairman John Lowery announced the increase from $14 million to $18 million during his State of the Tribe address this summer. The figure accounts for more than half of the nearly $33 million tribal budget Lowery proposed for this fiscal year.
“Over the next two to three years,” he said, “we’re going to put a lot of people in a lot of homes.”
But even with the increase, tribal leaders say the Lumbee people will need more access to housing in their territory, which includes Robeson, Scotland, Hoke and Cumberland counties.
The economically depressed region has suffered many blows over the decades, including the loss of tobacco and textile manufacturing jobs. Two hurricanes – Matthew in 2016 and Florence in 2018 – devastated communities, especially in Robeson County, where the tribe has its headquarters. Then came the coronavirus pandemic, along with inflation and rising rents and home prices.
The median sale price of homes in Robeson County was $180,000 in July, up 12.5% from a year earlier, according to Rocket Homes.
All of the tribe’s housing programs, from rental units to mortgage assistance, have waiting lists, said Tammy Maynor, director of governmental affairs for the Lumbees.
More than 125 families applied to live in an under-construction 15-home rental development near Pembroke, according to the tribe.
With only partial recognition from the federal government, most of the federal funds the Lumbee tribe receives is earmarked for housing. The tribe has been pushing for more than a century for full federal recognition, which has been granted to only one North Carolina tribe: the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in the western part of the state.
With full recognition, the Lumbee tribe would be eligible for significantly more money that could be used for education, health care and other services. There would also be more money to expand the existing housing stock, which now includes more than 100 homes.
“We could do a lot more developments, go after bigger projects,” said Anthony Pevia, director of housing development for the tribe.
The tribe ramped up its housing program in the early 2000s, Maynor said, when it built about 50 rentals and 10 single-family homes a year.
Dozens more homes followed, she said, until the region was struck by a triple whammy of two hurricanes and the pandemic. Tribal leaders used the lull to plan.
“Things were really just thwarted,” Maynor said. “But now we’re seeing the fruits of that planning.”
Warriors’ Way, which features several mobile homes donated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, opened in May in Raynham, about 10 miles north of the South Carolina state line. A stone’s throw away is a Dreamcatcher community, which will eventually feature 30 single-family homes nestled in a quaint subdivision.
Fifteen homes opened this summer in the Union Chapel community. A 23-home community for tribal elders ages 55 and older is being developed in the town of Rowland. Another elders’ development, which opened in Pembroke about seven years ago, has plans to add 50 more units.
And the list goes on.
The tribe also has a program to fund repairs in qualifying members’ homes, and Lowery said there are plans to expand transitional housing for people who have successfully completed drug treatment. Another program helps members with a down payment to purchase homes.
“It’s wealth building,” Maynor said of the tribe’s focus on housing. “It is the key way for us to build wealth in our community.”
Grateful for home
McNutt, who served as a dental assistant in the Army, said she had planned to build a home in Robeson County, just like her parents did when she was a child.
That year, she said, there were no presents under the Christmas tree, because their new house was their gift. And she was just fine with that.
Life kept getting in the way of her own home-building plans, however. In 2015, she said, she was rattled when a young man was shot near where she was staying in Pembroke. She stopped the bleeding until emergency workers arrived – a scene that took her mind back to the war zone.
McNutt said she knew that her beloved Lumbee tribe – she educated people everywhere she went in the world about her heritage – offered housing opportunities to veterans. She even referred some veterans to the tribal program when she worked at the VA, she said.
But she didn’t consider it for herself.
“I didn’t feel worthy enough, because they needed it more than I did,” McNutt said. “It was my job as a health caretaker to make sure they were OK. That’s still part of me. It doesn’t ever go away.”
Now that she’s had a few months to settle in at her new home, McNutt said she has found peace. She’s happy that her daughter – the youngest of her three children – has her own bedroom and bathroom.
McNutt said she has gotten to know her neighbors, fellow veterans who understand her. They gather on her front porch, she said, and they plan to create a community garden on her property.
Flowers help manage her stress, McNutt said. So do hummingbirds and art therapy and her service dog, a 3.5-pound Yorkshire Terrier named Annabell.
She’s grateful for home.
The Lumbee tribe hopes to put more families into stable homes, building communities and changing the face of Robeson County.
“We have to,” Maynor said. “Our people need us to do that. We don’t have any other options.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem