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Native American Youth and Family Center’s Mercedes White Calf channels experience with homelessness, addiction into hope

Southwest Washington advocacy coordinator hosts “Mercedes Second Chance” podcast

By Mia Ryder-Marks, Columbian staff reporter
Published: April 8, 2024, 6:05am
4 Photos
Mercedes White Calf, who uses her experience with homelessness and addiction in her legal outreach, takes a break at her desk in Fourth Plain Commons. White Calf meets with Indigenous peoples across the state to help them advocate during legislative sessions.
Mercedes White Calf, who uses her experience with homelessness and addiction in her legal outreach, takes a break at her desk in Fourth Plain Commons. White Calf meets with Indigenous peoples across the state to help them advocate during legislative sessions. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

It wasn’t long ago that Mercedes White Calf was homeless and struggling with addiction. Now, she channels those experiences to help others in Washington also have a second chance.

White Calf works as the Southwest Washington advocacy coordinator with the Native American Youth and Family Center and a lobbyist for the nonprofit’s action fund.

“All I want to do is spread hope, because at one point I didn’t have any,” said White Calf, who’s Indigenous.

One way she aims to achieve this is through her podcast “Mercedes Second Chance,” in which she interviews people who have experienced homelessness, addiction and other challenges.

Her podcast was born out of inspirational messages she heard while in treatment: “It only takes five minutes before a miracle” or “If you’re having a hard time, and you feel like you’re hanging on by a string, tie a knot in it and hold on.”

“I needed to hear those things,” White Calf said. “Because anytime I wanted to use drugs, alcohol, all bets were off — I’m using. I didn’t know that there was another way of life. And I considered myself an educated woman, but I knew nothing about recovery.”

‘Slave to drugs’

White Calf grew up in Portland. She earned her bachelor’s degree at the University of Oregon, where she was a recipient of the Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarship.

But after graduation, White Calf began experimenting with drugs. She lost her job at a law firm and drove to California to search for employment. She eventually became homeless.

“I found myself living in Los Angeles on Skid Row,” she said. “I’ve seen terrible things happen over $10. I was out there for years fending for myself, sleeping in tents, cars, alleys, behind garbage cans. I didn’t have a pillow or cover; there was no such thing as pajamas.”

White Calf said being homeless often felt like a never-ending cycle that’s hard to escape. Although there were resources, she said, there weren’t enough.

“I just couldn’t get out of there. It was like one good thing would happen, but then something bad would happen. I might get a shelter bed for the night, but we couldn’t bring our belongings in so if I left my clothes and blankets with someone, they’d be gone because someone would steal them or leave them somewhere,” she said.

White Calf eventually made her way back to Portland and later entered treatment.

“When I first got clean, I didn’t know what month it was,” White Calf said. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, she said.

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It was rough at first, she said, but what helped was being in a program designed by people who were once in her shoes.

“Because when you’re a drug addict, you’re a slave to drugs — you no longer have freedom, and you are subject to sustaining and maintaining that habit, by any means necessary, stronger than any love you can ever have for yourself or your family or your children,” White Calf said. “It’s an aggressive disease. … It’s dragging you just on the edge of death.”

White Calf worked as a janitor while she was enrolled in the treatment program and saved the money for housing. When she graduated from the program, she was a bit hesitant, she said.

“I was kind of scared to leave because I didn’t see how I could get through … working an eight-hour day without using drugs,” White Calf said.

She’s been clean and sober for nearly five years.

“I just needed someone to give me a chance,” she said.

A second chance

A staff member from White Calf’s treatment program hired her as a housing advocate. While in that position, she encountered a lot of policies that perpetuate generational poverty and the cycle she often found herself in while trying to overcome homelessness.

One example, she said, is low-income people often cannot accept a job that pays more than minimum wage, because it impacts their subsidized housing and other benefits.

“These (resources) sometimes are only sustaining people. So in some ways, utilization of resources doesn’t necessarily mean success,” she said.

Witnessing this inspired White Calf to pursue policy change work. She joined NAYA Family Center in 2021.

She knew she wanted to be a lobbyist, she said, and began training herself on the legislative process. Eventually, White Calf was hired as a lobbyist with NAYA’s Action Fund in 2022.

“I literally did not know anything. I didn’t know the difference between Democrats and Republicans. And the only context I ever had of what a bill was, was the thing that comes to your house that you pay,” White Calf said.

She began networking with different legislators who were sponsoring bills endorsed by her job and that she was passionate about.

White Calf has lobbied for several state House and Senate bills, as well as Congress’ Senate Bill 1723, which would establish a national Truth and Healing Commission for Indigenous boarding school survivors where they could report their stories and have them documented in U.S. records.

She said S. 1723 was personal for her, as her mother was a boarding school survivor. (Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools across North America. Children were culturally assimilated from their Indigenous heritage.)

White Calf helps people practice their testimonies for legislative sessions, and shows them they belong on the floor.

“That’s the most empowering and rewarding part of my job,” White Calf said.

White Calf has many goals for her future.

She’s currently studying for the Law School Admission Test. She wants to open a home in Pine Ridge, S.D. — where some of her family is from — for children whose parents are experiencing homelessness or addiction. She envisions it as a safe place for youth to have a meal, socialize and learn.

She also wants to create a conference for young women and continue advocating for policy change. But her goals’ central theme is to show others they can accomplish their dreams, too.

“Whatever you’re going through, you can overcome it,” White Calf said. “You don’t have to get out of here and get high or get drunk, just to dissolve the pain or make it go away for a minute. There’s a whole life ahead of you that you can create because of that pain — not just in spite of it.”

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This story was made possible by Community Funded Journalism, a project from The Columbian and the Local Media Foundation. Top donors include the Ed and Dollie Lynch Fund, Patricia, David and Jacob Nierenberg, Connie and Lee Kearney, Steve and Jan Oliva, The Cowlitz Tribal Foundation and the Mason E. Nolan Charitable Fund. The Columbian controls all content. For more information, visit columbian.com/cfj.