All photographs by Xandr Brown.

The White Mountain Apache Housing Authority (WMAHA) in Arizona established their Veteran Rehab Program to give those who have been honorably discharged a reward hard found upon their return: a home. 

“A home is central…to our family,”  said Chairwoman Gwendena Lee Gatewood. “Long ago our people lived in Wickiups. Just imagine the progress we’ve made to where we now can live in modern homes.”

The Fort Apache Indian reservation is made up of a population of 17,000 that sits in the shadows of the mountains that surround it in East Central Arizona. At first sight, many of the homes on the reservation are in poor condition. Some yards hold weathered relics of what belongs in a kitchen, a playroom, or a nursery. Some yards hold nothing at all. These homes appear small and seem even smaller considering that some of them house several generations of families. 

But some days the landscape is interrupted with people donned in orange and white hard hats—a homegrown workforce. Residents of the community are trained in electrical, insulation, and construction with the intention of continuing to push against the housing deficit from the inside out. 

“The need for the White Mountain Apache tribe is really great, the housing authority does 90% of housing programs, whether it’s a remodel, new build, veteran housing,” said WMAHA Executive director Victor Velasquez.

Over 6,000 homes have been rehabilitated by the White Mountain Apache Housing Authority, said WMAHA Deputy Director Dorothy Parker, and it’s only a fraction of the work that needs to be done. “We have a long waiting list which exceeds 2,200,” said Parker.

The Veteran Home Rehabilitation program is a decade in the making, an effort against a housing crisis long echoed in these mountains, and those like Filmore Wool, Dennis Massey Jr., and Rufus Glenn Burnette are finally seeing its benefits. According to their website, 18 homes have been serviced by the program.

It’s a monumental milestone for many veterans due to the hardships faced upon their return to the reservation from injury inflicted in service, to addiction, and unemployment. According to the Department of Labor and Statistics, in 2020 of the 581,000 unemployed veterans 41% of those veterans were ages 55 and older.

After coming back to the tribal community from his time in service, Wool, 73, earned his Commercial Driving License and became a truck driver.   The job changed his life and he encountered people along the way that would lead up to him receiving a newly constructed home.

“And then from there on things starts working up, start going up for me. And then like everybody, everybody usually goes through hardships and everything, with their personal life, how you get addicted to things. That’s the same way that anyone is, everybody is. But after that, I cut off a lot of things when I got this job. And then the boss says, ‘Well, I’m going to tell you what,’ he said, ‘All these here in my employees, most of them are 22 years ahead of you.’ And I said, ‘Wow.’ He said, ‘Look, you just came to us. Within eight months, you got a CDL. Look at these guys, they don’t want it, or what?’ And they asked the same thing for them. See, he gives you something that you can motivate yourself on. So, I did that, then I started driving for them. I went to California, Texas, New Mexico, whatever they owned it, I went for it. I went and got it for them. But that was kind of like a life for me, and then they kept going, kept going. And then I said, ‘When I retire, I’m going to read the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.’ That’s when starts things going. It’s going, going. After that, I’m testifying to you now about what has been happening through here. I dreamed in that white truck, that’s my white truck. I was driving that and I dreamed, I dreamed about a place where I’d never been before.”
Filmore (73), an Army veteran, stands in front of his fully rehabbed home on the Fort Apache Housing Reservation.
 “Oh, man, you won’t believe it. Everybody wants to stay here. Even my grandkids, they don’t want to leave. Said, “We want to stay here, want to be here with you,” because once you see it from the outside, but when you go inside, it’s different. And they said, “Wow, this is a good house.” And they like it. And right now I’m just kind of working around it to make it. I got some grass growing back there already now. But up here in the front, I know we’re going to use it for a while. So I just left and I’m just going to go down this way. Yeah, I’m kind of doing that.”

When Burnette, 68, graduated high school the Vietnam War was over but his name was still drafted into service.

“I was still getting letters saying that my name was still on the deal. I said, ‘You know what? I may as well do my time and get out of it right away.’ Even though it was scary, I did. I went to serve, I went to the Army.”

Rufus Glenn Burnette (68), an Army veteran, stands beside his wife on the porch of their newly renovated home.
“I was in electronics, but I was not known on the reservation like my dad was. But they, from being a veteran, they helped me to get a job as a bus mechanic. I was a mechanic because since I was doing that radios, but then everything else just come. Then hospital, opened the hospital, the new one was being built [00:07:00] and then I applied for it and I got picked in the electronic section and I started from there. Just kept going to class, they sent me to class. This is where I’m at. All electrical school from them and everything else.”

In some cases, like that of Burnette, a brand new home isn’t necessary. In 2019 Burnette’s home had a complete internal renovation.

“Oh, they remodeled the whole house inside from the bottom to the top. A new, a bigger showers and bigger, hot water heater. Everything’s good. Everything’s, it’s warm in there now. Right now it’s cold in there. Because it’s warm right here. You know how it is. But when it snows, you don’t even know it’s snowing and everything out cause it’s still warm in there. I just build a fire and then to keep it at that.”

There are still veterans like Massey Jr., 64, whose application has been accepted but has yet to see the end result of the home rehab program. After being discharged with a knee injury, he returned to the reservation and faced unemployment. Eventually, he started taking on construction jobs and worked in the industry for 20 years. He currently shares his home with his six-year-old grandson. The rehab will include extensive upgrading of windows, electricity, and the floors. 

“I came back here and my life changed and it was nothing good that came up when I came back. I couldn’t find a job. Also, there’s really hardly a job, but it’s my fault. I didn’t continue to search for a job. I stop here and there and there was no job. So alcohol kicked in, it kicked in, it dragged me down to the lowest point of my life.”
“I thought I was blessed because I seen some houses that went through that, that’s been rehabbed. Man, I’m proud of these workers that does that. They have talent, they work, they work fast, and to be chosen to have my house rehabbed, I was happy. My family, brother, and sisters were happy for me. Some of them live in Tucson and some of them live in Phoenix. They’re all happy because they know how old this house is. They all moved out. My brother and sisters, they all moved up from this house and all the relatives around here, they were raised here too. They moved out and they got their own house. That’s my stepsister living next door. And my stepbrother lived over on top. He’s got a house too. So they all got a house, they all moved out.
So it tells you how old this house is. And a lot of people went through this house. I was wondering why did my dad invite people coming through here? I wasn’t jealous or anything. I got seven brothers and three sisters. There’s a lot of us already. And I was wondering why, why, why my dad is letting people come in and stay? Then I found out that how my dad grew up, it wasn’t pretty.”
“That’s my grandson,  A’Treyus. He stay with us a lot. He stays a lot. He came, this is his house already. “Grandpa, that’s my house,” he says. And he is only six years old. His dad live up there, he’s watching a house up there, but he stays over here when he is here. They sleep over here in the living room. Lot of grandkids, they come over, they sleep over there.”

Since January 12, 2022, Massey Jr. has been moved to temporary housing as he waits for the completion of his renovations.

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