Seattle Indian Health Board gets $5 million for site on Vashon

A nationally recognized Seattle health organization that specializes in services for urban Native Americans has been awarded federal money to locate an inpatient substance abuse treatment center on Vashon.

A nationally recognized Seattle health organization that specializes in services for urban Native Americans has been awarded federal money to locate an inpatient substance abuse treatment center on Vashon.

In a Dec. 23 press release that received little attention at the time, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, whose district includes Vashon and most of Seattle, announced last December that she had obtained $33 million in the 2023 federal budget for projects in her district.

Among them: “$5 million for Thunderbird Treatment Center on Vashon Island, Seattle Indian Health Board.”

Jayapal’s original ask in terms of an appropriation for the project was $20 million. Her office did not respond to multiple requests for details about the project.

The Indian Health Board operated an inpatient center for substance use disorders, also called the Thunderbird Treatment Center, in Seattle’s Rainier Beach neighborhood for 33 years. It closed the facility and sold the aging building three years ago, saying it no longer met the program’s needs.

In a November 2019 statement, Esther Lucero (Diné), the chief executive officer of the Health Board, said the organization was “actively looking for locations that will allow us to expand from a 65-bed to a 92-bed facility, and better integrate mental health, dental, and medical services, along with the Traditional Indian Medicine services we have already successfully integrated.”

The statement also said that the health board wanted to expand its in-patient care services for pregnant women, women with children, individuals with mental health needs, and individuals with substance use disorder needs.

The Seattle Indian Health Board did not reply to multiple inquiries about its current plans for an inpatient treatment center on Vashon.

In a development that may or may not be related, the president and CEO for Transforming Age, the current owner of the vacant Vashon Community Care building, told The Beachcomber the building is under contract to be sold.

CEO Torsten Hirche would not name the prospective buyer of the former assisted-living and memory-care center, which closed in late 2021, only saying that the prospective purchaser was a nonprofit organization.

Vashon Household (VHH), a local affordable housing nonprofit, is not the prospective buyer of the property, said its executive director, Jason Johnson.

“Vashon Household is always exploring opportunities to increase affordable housing options in this community,” Johnson said in an emailed statement. “We regularly review land, homes, and buildings that are for sale and try to see what is possible for us to develop. Typically, we are not able to move forward because of limited public and private funding. At this time, our organization would not be in a position to purchase a large property such as VCC or K2 on our own. We would need to work in partnership with local community organizations and individuals to build or acquire future housing at that scale.”

After Transforming Age announced that it would close the VCC facility in September of 2021, Vashon HouseHold signaled its interest in the property.

Chris Szala, VHH’s former director, said in November of 2021 that VHH had been interested in potentially acquiring or operating a portion of the building as affordable housing, but had hoped to do so in partnership with Sea Mar Community Health Centers — a possibility that Sea Mar’s executive team nixed, after touring the skilled nursing section of the building and deeming it unsuitable for renovation into a primary health clinic.

Seattle Indian Health Board

The Seattle Indian Health Board was established in 1970 to give urban American Indians in Seattle access to healthcare and services that were operated by Native people, for Native people.

Currently, Seattle Indian Health Board operates healthcare clinics in three locations, in Lake City, the International District and its newly opened Pioneer Square Clinic. In 2020, the health board served 4,600 patients, more than 60% of whom identified as American Indian and/or Alaska Native.

Additionally, a division of Seattle Indian Health Board, Urban Indian Health Institute (UIHI) is the only Tribal Epidemiology Center focused specifically on the nationwide urban American Indian and Alaska Native population. The program is funded by the Indian Health Service.

Thunderbird Recovery Center

The Thunderbird Recovery Center, located in Rainier Beach in an aging facility originally built for unwed mothers in 1926, was established in 1987. For the next three decades, Thunderbird’s treatment programs served low-income Alaska Native and American Indian patients, as well as non-Natives, according to a 2020 article in The Seattle Times about the facility’s closure.

Thunderbird provided a 45-day in-patient recovery program, utilizing traditional Indian medicine and onsite case management for participants in order to reintegrate them back into housing and productive lives at the end of their treatment.

At the time of the Thunderbird’s closure, Lucero, the Health Board’s CEO, described a new vision for the facility’s future in an interview in The Seattle Times, saying that the Health Board’s aim was to reestablish the treatment center at “the premier treatment program for Native people in the country.”

That, she added, meant treating “traditional Indian medicine with the same respect we do Western medicine, and that our people can access the recovery services they need regardless of what substance they’re trying to overcome … where families can be part of recovery, and where we can offer reentry into their communities in a really mindful way.”