How Housing Can Help Break the Substance Use Cycle

On Montana’s Flathead Reservation, one man is changing lives

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How Housing Can Help Break the Substance Use Cycle

When people arrive at the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority office seeking help from Daniel Tromp to find a home, he knows a lot about many of them before they ever say a word about their lives.

He has spent his life on the Flathead Reservation in western Montana and is a member of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. The spectacular vistas and natural beauty of these lands belie what happens indoors for many here, where substance use, mental illness, and job loss upends lives. Tromp, who is 45, knows this because he’s seen it among his own family. He knows it could have happened to him.

A man sits in the center of a blue couch. He’s wearing a white henley shirt with blue jeans. On both sides of him, two middle school-aged girls sit. They have long brown hair and brown eyes. The girl on the left is wearing glasses, a white T-shirt, and blue jeans. The girl on the right is wearing a navy-blue V-neck T-shirt and blue jeans with rips at the knees. Two small brown dogs sit on her lap.
Daniel Tromp became the legal guardian of his nieces, Kodi (left) and Kai-Cee Sorrell, when his brother couldn’t care for them anymore. The family lives in Ronan, Montana. Pups Bella (left) and Chloe are “Mal-Shis,” a mix between a Maltese and Shih Tzu, and “nice family dogs,” said Tromp.
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts
Three middle school-aged girls play softball on a grassy field on a bright, clear day. In the right third of the photo, one girl jumps up to catch a fly ball with her glove, her left arm outstretched straight in the air.
Kodi catches the fly ball during her older sister’s Kai-cee’s softball practice. Both Kai-cee and Kodi excel in athletics, playing sports year-round, as well as academics. Says Tromp, “They’re getting straight A’s because I helped push them a little bit.”
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts

But he found a way to break this cycle of substance use and now spends his days trying to help others find housing that offers the stability people need as they seek better lives.

Hopeful stories like Tromp’s are happening every day in communities across the nation but are often overshadowed by the sheer enormity of the substance use taking lives and splintering families.

Four people sit around a conference table. At left, two women sit side by side. They have dark hair and are wearing black sweaters. At right, two men sit next to each other. The man closest to the center of the room is wearing a blue hat and a gray sweatshirt. The other man is wearing a white shirt and a gray jacket.
Daniel Tromp (right) meets with managers Shanell Teigan (left), Jody Cahoon Perez, and Bud Gillin at the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority. During his tenure at the agency, Tromp has helped hundreds of people on the Flathead Indian reservation find housing. Some of the people he has assisted have struggled with life challenges such as job loss, substance use, or mental health issues. “They had backgrounds just like me,” he said, reflecting on what he witnessed during his childhood.
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Those seeking help often face barriers, such as a lack of culturally competent care that respects patients’ cultural norms and beliefs, as well as inconsistent follow-up. Native Americans and Alaska Natives also face unique burdens such as historical underfunding of the Indian Health Service and the impact of generational trauma from federal policies created to forcefully assimilate Indigenous people.

This month, the Biden administration announced that it would provide up to $1.48 billion to states and $63 million to Tribes to help address the surge in overdoses in 2024. The Pew Charitable Trusts is working at the state and federal levels to increase access to medications proved to help those with substance use disorders and to expand access to mental health treatment. Pew is also partnering with Native-led organizations to optimize funding for culturally competent programs that center traditional healing practices. The work by Pew and other organizations to increase care is essential, but in the end, all those efforts roll down to communities such as the Flathead Reservation and to people like Daniel Tromp.

Shown from behind, a man sits at his desk, working on his computer. Pinned to the wall above his computer are school photos of two middle school-aged girls with long brown hair. A large calendar hangs above his desk.
Smiles from school photos of Kai-cee and Kodi Sorrell greet Tromp at work. He is proud to be raising his nieces with the stability that he didn’t have in his own childhood. He often reminds them to be kind to others at school, “because you have no idea what’s going on in their home,” he said.
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Tromp has few memories of his mother before the age of 10. He and his twin sister, Rachelle, and his brother, Jason, lived with their father, who had remarried. But by their teenage years, his siblings moved in with their mother and her husband, and Daniel stayed with them during the summers, moving in more permanently when he was 16.

It was a time, Tromp recalled, of alcohol and “drugs, drugs, drugs.” The family was evicted from their home on the reservation because of his mother and stepfather’s substance use, and they spent six months living in a tent in the mountains before regaining more permanent housing.

By the time Tromp was 20, “I easily could have become a drug addict,” he recalled. “That’s what I was surrounded by.” He said he didn’t realize at first that his exposure to drugs and alcohol at an early age wasn’t normal. He would talk about what went on at home to friends, and “people would look at me like I was a weirdo. I started realizing how not normal it was.”

He found a way to put himself through college and studied business. After he landed the job at the housing authority, he took a course so he could teach credit counseling to others. Out of pure curiosity, he signed up for a workshop on generational poverty that he learned about through the housing authority. “My eyes just started opening up,” he said. “I was like, oh my God, that’s us exactly.”

By the time he was 26, his stepfather had died by suicide, and five years later, his mother died from complications of substance use. He took in his two youngest half-brothers, who were 7 and 13 at the time. The oldest lived with him until he graduated from high school, and the youngest stayed with Daniel until he was 23.

By the time Daniel was in his late 20s, he landed a job with the housing authority.

“One of his biggest strengths is his accountability,” said Jody Cahoon Perez, the authority’s executive director. “He applies the pressure on himself to get things done.”

The housing authority offers support to eligible tribal members living on the Flathead Reservation. Services range from subsidized low-income rentals units to downpayment assistance to help buying a first home, to providing free housing for those in crisis, including those who are struggling with substance use disorder or mental health conditions.

A wooden sign welcoming visitors to Ronan, Montana, stands near a road with cars parked outside houses. In the background are snowcapped mountains.
A welcome sign—and the Mission Mountain range of the Rockies—greets visitors as they enter the town limits of Ronan, Montana, home to the Salish and Kootenai Housing Authority. On the sign, Salish and Kootenai words translate to “Spring Waters.”
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Now serving as finance manager, Tromp has held several roles throughout his tenure. One involved working with the organization’s transitional living center, which provides temporary housing to families and individuals who have emergency needs. He sees himself in the people he has helped who have struggled with job loss, substance use, or mental health.

“They had backgrounds just like me,” he said. And, he said, many are reluctant to seek care because of the stigma associated with asking for help.

As Tromp moved ahead, staying away from drugs and pursuing his career, members of his family remained trapped in substance use, and some spent time in jail. Tromp said he was fortunate because he had his dad, whom he could always count on for support, and good friends to lean on, and he was motivated to care for his younger half-brothers. His stepfather’s and mother’s deaths “changed my priorities to an extent. I knew I had to get a job, step up, and be more responsible, and it all fell into place.”

Small, tan houses with cars parked in the driveways line an empty street. The sky is bright blue with wispy clouds.
Newly built two-bedroom homes are available to Tribal members who are eligible for the housing authority’s low-rent program. Throughout the Flathead Reservation, the housing authority is helping to expand resources for those struggling with substance use by collaborating with the group Never Alone Recovery Support Services (NARSS) to develop a “Recovery Village.” The program will help provide people with substance use disorder and experiencing homelessness with low-rent housing and long-term recovery support.
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts

As hard as it was at that time, more challenges were to come.

One day seven years ago, Tromp’s phone rang, and local youth protection authorities were on the line asking him to take in his nieces. His younger brother could no longer care for them. After years of helping others on the reservation, it was time for him to turn again to his own family.

“I was like, ‘What? You want them to move in right now? Like right now?’” said Tromp, who laughs when recalling the memory.

His nieces, Kai-cee, who then was 7, and Kodi, who was 4, moved in with him. And at age 38, Tromp became a single dad.

“I had basically no help,” he said. But he had a vision for a better life for the girls. He made sure they got to school, got busy in activities, stayed away from drugs and alcohol—and watched him go to work every day to earn a living for them. He said he tries to be a positive role model for them.

The girls have felt the change. Last year, Kodi got an “excellent” score on a school essay about her uncle Dan, whom she called “My Hero.”

A close-up photo of an essay, written on large-rule notebook paper.
Daniel displays his youngest niece’s essay on the wall of his office. Says Tromp, “I'm super proud of them.”
Tailyr Irvine for The Pew Charitable Trusts

Today, Tromp sounds like a proud father when he talks about Kai-cee and Kodi. They are straight-A students and stellar athletes. And he reminds his nieces to be kind to others at school, “because you have no idea what’s going on in their home,” he said.

He also sounds like someone who knows he’s changed his own life and helped others to do it, too. “I am a firm believer that the only way that the cycle of addiction and sadness is broken is that someone in the family has to step up and break it.”

Julia Barnes is a senior associate with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ institutional communications team.

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