Research Matters Blog

Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary
December 06, 2016

By way of introduction.

In the first blog in this series, Dr. Alina Turner gave an overview on the Haven’s Way program model – a Foyer supportive housing program for youth in Calgary - and what the evaluation research discerned of the program’s impact on supporting youth to achieve stability and independence. See full report on the program here.

It is important to complement the research perspective with of those of people ‘living’ Haven’s Way: the staff and youth residing in this home. In this blog, Heidi Walter, current Manager of Youth Housing at Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary and former House Parent at Haven’s Way describes what she feels is the essence of Haven's Way to better convey why it works.  In this blog, she describes a typical day in her life at Haven’s where she lived with eight youth for four years.

Haven’s is a home. 

Haven's Way is homeWhen you walk in the door, you see lives being lived.  There is a crocheted blanket on the couch knitted by a youth who was determined to learn a new skill.  You see burnt cookies in the garbage from a youth that tried something new, a family dog that is in the backyard and youth in their rooms hanging out with their friend’s afterschool listening to music and talking way too loud.

When I lived at Havens Way as a House Parent, I came home from work, took off my shoes, yelled hello upstairs to the girls, asked them how their day was, and changed into my comfy clothes wrapping my hair in a ponytail.  Dinner would get started, and like all teenagers, as soon as the smells made their way upstairs, they would slowly come down to see what was being made.   Slithering up beside me to stir the pot, I would ask how school was, or why they didn’t go, all the while they asked what spices could be used to make the dinner taste a little different tonight.   They would explain why it was hard to wake up today, or what barrier stood in their way of getting out the door.  They would tell me about how great they did on an exam or how a teacher gave them feedback on an assignment that made them smile.  They would continue to talk, and I would listen, while folding the laundry, tidying up the living room and answering one last email that I didn’t get to during the day. 

After dinner, we would sit on the couch, flick through the channels and come back around to the school conversation and how tomorrow would be different.  There would be no consequence given, no voices raised, but a gentle reminder of why they needed to go to school and what I could do tomorrow to support them in getting there……Crickets……

The knock on the door.

By 11 pm, all girls are home and I am ready for bed.  I lock the door, hug the girls good night, and head to my room.  It never fails, there is always a knock on my door.  Teenagers’ best thinking and communication skills seem to come out at 11pm. My bedroom door would open and there would my girl that now wanted to talk about why they didn’t go to school.  They would sit on the end of the bed and I would listen.  They would tell me all the reasons they didn’t go to school, some valid, some not.  I would listen.  12:00 am is what the clock reads on my nightstand and I think we are close to saying goodnight.  I haven’t done much talking and there is no formal agreement made. We hug and say goodnight for the second time. 

There for the journey.

The alarm goes off to start a new day, and I can already hear the shower upstairs.  YES!  We are getting up to go to school.  I open my door and say good morning to all the girls.  Lunches are made, lunches are forgotten.  The house door opens and closes a dozen times because we forgot our phone charger, bus pass, and school bag.  The lunch is still forgotten, but everyone is at school. 

I didn’t do anything, but I did what they needed.  I was there.  I held their hand, I walked alongside them, I was there for their journey.  I didn’t rush them, I didn’t force them.  They “broke the rules” and I didn’t have to point that out.  They knew it, but I still was there for them.

Did you know that the best time to grocery shop is at 9pm on work night?  It was inevitable and no matter how many times I asked when I got home from work, or on the weekend, no one ever needed to go. But at 9pm on a Wednesday, we never had anything to eat.  I would have to learn the balance of meeting them where they are at on their timelines and them learning to be more thoughtful when relying on others.  This was one of the many teachable moments. 

You never really leave.

I planned my wedding while living at Haven’s Way, and the girls were a part of every step. If you asked them, they would say I was a Bridezilla, I disagree.  Maybe it was all the dress fittings they attended with me, or table decorations they helped create and the promised last trip to the mall. 

Four years went by, many graduations, school meetings, sleepless nights, pickups at 3am in my pyjamas because they couldn’t get home, and runs to 7/11 for Slurpees. I myself graduated from Haven’s Way and move to a new home. 

I have been a part of Haven’s Way for 10 years now.  You never really leave.  You show up for everything that is important because it is important.  Weddings are being planned, flowers and cards are picked up for another graduation, and the girls expect to see you at Christmas dinners. 

Just last week, one of the girls popped into my office to ask me to help them register for university.  One asked if I could go to the mechanics with her, as she thought she was being taken for a ride.  Now in my own home, I go through my closet and when cleaning it out I package it up for my girls to go through.  I know I will see them next week at their graduation.  They call me ‘Momma Heidi’. 

This is Haven’s Way. 

It is a home, where you bring your true authentic self.  You are humble and kind.  You have bad days in front of the kids: they see you running late for work, with a toothbrush in your mouth, telling them to clean up.  No prescription, no textbooks, just us, living our life.    

Havens Way helped us build a family.  Family is not who you are given, it is what you make it.  These girls are roommates, sisters and best friend’s years after.  They are each other’s family, and I am a part of it. 

This is Havens Way – from my perspective. In the next blog post in this series, we will hear from a youth who lived at Haven’s Way and continues to be engaged in Alumnae activities as Haven’s Angel; coincidentally, her name is Ange.

York University; Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
December 05, 2016
Categories: Topics

This past National Housing Day marked the 18th anniversary of Toronto City Council declaring homelessness a national disaster in Canada, commemorating hundreds of Canadians who have lost their lives as a direct result of experiencing homelessness. To commiserate the occasion, the federal government released What We Heard: Shaping Canada’s National Housing Strategy. The report shares the voices of Canadians and their concerns with all things housing — chiefly among them being affordability, sustainability, accessibility and a desire to prevent homelessness. With this feedback, the federal government plans to implement the housing concerns of Canadians in the final proposal expected to be released in  early 2017.

#LetsTalkHousing

We applaud the federal government in mobilizing this crucially needed initiative. We are further encouraged that Canadians who took part in the consultation process recognized the role that discrimination plays in inadequate housing, specifically that: “…a national housing strategy should examine whether our laws, policies and practices are sufficient to prevent homelessness, forced evictions, and discrimination in having adequate housing”. Promisingly, the results demonstrate that Canadians possess a nuanced understanding of the multiple factors that lead to homelessness and the solutions needed, of which, a prevalent and consistent barrier to housing and a precursor to homelessness is discrimination.

Homelessness & Discrimination

Homelessness and discrimination commonly intersect, as discrimination often acts as a structural precursor to homelessness and, in turn, the experience of homelessness can lead to being discriminated against. Discrimination occurs when an individual is treated differently than another solely on the basis of some characteristic or indeed an interplay of characteristics such as race, sexual orientation, religion, physical disability, mental illness, age, citizenship status, gender, and/or socioeconomic status. Discrimination significantly impacts the options and choices of individuals when it comes to all sorts of things in life such as employment, housing and access to services that all contribute to an increased risk of experiencing homelessness. Although individuals from any background can experience homelessness, research shows that marginalized populations are overrepresented among the homeless population in proportion to their population makeup in Canada.

Research on housing discrimination demonstrates prejudice on the part of landlords and real estate agents in declining potential tenants based on a host of characteristics, and that despite the presence of anti-discrimination laws in Canada, discriminatory practices are increasingly implicit, rather than explicit. Commonly reoccurring discriminatory practices include:

  • Racialized women disportionately discriminated against when seeking housing.

  • In particular, single mothers experience discrimination from landlords based on their age, family size, low income, receiving welfare, race, language proficiency and a lack of references.

  • Research demonstrates that immigrant populations of Jamaican and Somali origin cited experiencing discrimination in Toronto based on multiple factors in addition to race, including income level, citizenship status, religion and family size when compared to their Polish immigrant counterparts.

  • Many individuals are denied housing based on their low socioeconomic status, if they are recipients of social assistance, or have formerly experienced homelessness. When denied housing on these grounds, individuals have stated this being a direct precursor to needing to seek emergency shelter accommodation.

  • Due to discrimination based on age and low socioeconomic status, youth commonly experience barriers to acquiring housing.

  • One study found that ⅓ of individuals seeking housing will face discrimination and be denied housing based on their mental illness.

  • Often times, minimum income or affordability requirements will be imposed upon prospective tenants, to which those who are more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status (youth, people with disabilities, single mothers, newcomers) will be unlikely to meet.

  • A study by CMHC found that in Winnipeg, Indigenous populations are commonly denied housing. One in three individuals surveyed scoping out a potential listing were told it had already been rented, thus pushing the individual to seek housing in uninhabitable regions.

  • Research demonstrates that LGBTQ2S individuals consistently experience housing discrimination based on gender identity and/or sexual orientation, whether as individuals or as couples.

From these findings, it is clear that individuals who find themselves subjected to discrimination based on singular or variously intersected elements of their identity consistently face barriers to obtaining housing. This is further compounded by the structural epidemic of unaffordable housing in Canada and the magnitude of Canadians in need of social housing. In Ontario alone, 171,360 are on wait lists for rent-geared-to-income unitsIndigenous populations specifically are overrepresented in the general population of those in need of housing in all provinces and territories.

Discrimination as a precursor to homelessness however is not isolated to housing alone, but rather is underpinned throughout society and reproduces inequality across all spheres, limiting opportunities for socioeconomic mobility and stability. Factors that deny individuals housing also work to impede employment and educational opportunities, and can lead to an increased risk of homelessness via a lack of stable income. For instance:

  • Racialized youth often face discrimination that is found to impact schooling and thus educational attainment, restricting opportunities for upward mobility and breaking free from non-precarious, entry-level employment.
  • Employment discrimination based on disability is a widely prevalent issue. Research demonstrates that working-age persons with physical and/or mental health disabilities are less likely to hold paid jobs than other Canadians due to discrimination based on an applicant's disability and/or a lack of supports and accommodations in the workplace.

  • Employment discrimination based on sexual orientation commonly impacts LGBTQ2S individuals in obtaining and/or maintaining employment, where one study found that in the U.S., employment discrimination costs $64 billion annually in expenses related to individuals who leave their jobs due to a toxic, discriminatory workplace environment.

  • Across OECD countries, employment discrimination based on race is consistently demonstrated. Researchers have found that applications with white-sounding names are 50% more likely to receive a call back for a job when compared to their counterparts with racially or religiously distinctive names.

  • Single mothers often face discriminatory employment practices, as potential employers may be hesitant to hire single parent applicants conscious of the demands of parenting and possible conflicts with availability and scheduling, facilitating a greater risk of poverty for this demographic.

  • Additionally, due to the stigma associated with homelessness, employers are commonly cited to be apprehensive in hiring individuals who have experienced homelessness.

Moving Forward

From this, discrimination as a barrier to employment as well as housing is inextricably linked with homelessness, as it impacts one's ability to obtain housing, work or an education thus contributing to a cycle of poverty that is difficult to escape. However, with the forthcoming release of Canada’s national housing strategy we have an opportunity to implement an anti-discrimination framework that works to identify and combat the role discrimination plays for many Canadians in obtaining safe, secure and affordable housing. It is encouraging that the release of What We Heard: Shaping Canada’s National Housing Strategy showed that Canadians want to have communities and workplaces that are inclusive and accessible to all individuals. In order to have a housing strategy that works for the many rather than the few, initiatives such as educating landlords in non-discriminatory practices, funding regular housing discrimination audits to monitor housing discrimination and providing resources to individuals in order to seek legal counselling when and if discrimination occurs are only a few suggestions towards making a society more inclusive to all Canadians.  

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/The Homeless Hub
December 01, 2016
Tags: students

There are many ways that students can get involved in volunteering with homeless serving agencies and organizations. This blog post details the activities of two student-led initiatives at York University working with people experiencing homelessness. We interviewed Omar Salama and Samantha Memedoska from Keep Toronto Warm and Awo Dirie from Fix the 6ix to find out more about the work that these organizations are doing, and how young people can get involved in volunteering. 

Omar Salama and Samantha Memedoska from Keep Toronto Warm and Awo Dirie from Fix the 6ix

Keep Toronto Warm

Omar Salama and Samantha Memedoska are co-directors of Keep Toronto Warm, an initiative that began in November of last year. Keep Toronto Warm works with roughly 15 volunteers at any given time to distribute ‘warmth packages’ to the unsheltered homeless. Student volunteers are at the forefront of all distributions and events, and all donations received go toward purchasing items for their warmth packages. One package includes 2 pairs of warm socks, a hot beverage gift card, a warm blanket and a personalized letter from the donor. 

“We recognize that we cannot solve the larger political and social issues that cause homelessness” says co-director, Samantha Memedoska, “but we can give people an immediate resource that they may need, like a pair of warm socks or a hot drink.” 

In September of this year they launched Keep Toronto Fed, a related initiative that aims to address food insecurity in the city. After collecting perfectly good food deemed by retailers to be ‘unsellable’ (for example, one or two day-old produce that would otherwise go to waste), a team of dedicated students distribute packed lunches around the city. Their first distribution was a huge success, thanks to generous donations from The Great Canadian Bagel company and the work of student volunteers. 

Fix the 6ix

Awo Dirie is the Assistant Director of Fix the 6ix, an organization that leads two separate programs that serve Torontonians in need; the ReGiftcard Program, and 100 for the Homies. Fix the 6ix repurposes the cash balance on unwanted and partially used gift cards through their ReGiftcard Program. To date, they have collected over 500 gift cards with over $2500 in credit.

In addition to providing meals to people both on the street and in shelters, they also purchase clothing and hygiene items for Sistering 24 hour women’s drop in, and donate Cineplex movie tickets to Eva’s Place Homeless Youth Shelter. Although they recognize that their programs offer only “temporary relief to food insecurity” through the continued efforts of student volunteers, they’ve supported over 20 shelters across the GTA. 

As many Toronto Raptors fans know, after every 100+ point home win, attending fans can take their tickets to redeem a free slice of pizza at participating Pizza Pizza locations. Through the 100 for the Homies program, Fix the 6ix collects tickets donated by fans, and distributes them at Toronto homeless shelters. Since April of the 2015/2016 season 100 for the Homies has collected 13,787 tickets donated by raptors fans. Sometimes shelters simply don’t have the capacity to properly store donated food, especially if it's highly perishable. 100 for the Homies offers a solution to this issue. At shelters, residents can make the autonomous decision whether or not to redeem their ticket for a slice of pizza.  

After providing us with some background information on their organizations, we asked Samantha, Omar and Awo to answer a few questions to get a better understanding of the work that their organizations do, and their future goals.

What inspired you to set up your organization?

As a group we can provide immediate protection from the cold; short-term comfort and access to resources for future support.

Keep Toronto Warm: The needs of our community inspired the start of this organization, and continues to inspire us everyday. Specifically, we were triggered by an article that we read which highlighted the death of two homeless individuals during the winter stemming from the lack of resources and space available in shelters. It was not difficult to walk the streets of the downtown core and notice that the community lacked the essentials to survive. 

Fix the 6ix: It was Deanna Lentini, a student of Kinesiology and Health Science and Founding Director of Fix the 6ix, whose eagerness to make change inspired us. Her overall goal was to make the city a better place by supporting our most in-need residents; Fix the 6ix was prompted by the passion she had for her own town. She wanted to give others an easy and ‘no-cost’ way to help those in-need. 

How do you think your organization is able to help and impact people experiencing homelessness?

Keep Toronto Warm: Our organization is not able to address the structural and larger political issues involved in homelessness, it is however, able to tackle some of the more immediate forces directly affecting the community. As a group we can provide immediate protection from the cold; short-term comfort and access to resources for future support.

Fix the 6ix: We work to advocate for and serve the homeless community, and we also help to connect people experiencing homelessness to shelters across Toronto. Ultimately, although we hope to make as many donations as we can to those in need, we also want to start a meaningful discussion about the issue of homelessness in Toronto, and what we can do to change it. 

How can young people become involved?

Keep Toronto Warm: Youth can get involved by lending time to organizations helping to combat larger social issues in the community, like homelessness. Young people often have many resources available to them through their schools and communities, and consequently it’s not too difficult to find support if they would like to start programs like ours. 

Fix the 6ix: Getting youth involved in anything is a great way to increase visibility and also a great way to bring in people who really want to help. Youth bring in fresh and innovative ideas that can also help an organization to grow and develop. If you are interested in volunteering with either of our programs, you can fill out our online form and email it to volunteer@fixthe6ix.ca

. Youth bring in fresh and innovative ideas that can also help an organization to grow and develop.

What are the current and future goals that your organization is focused on?

Keep Toronto Warm: Our main goal is to positively impact the lives of people without shelter during the winter by providing them with essential care packages. In the future, we hope to spread awareness in our communities; by educating and highlighting the issue of homelessness, we can hopefully motivate others to get involved in whatever way that they can.  

Fix the 6ix: Our ultimate goal is to offer visibility and inspire a new understanding of the homeless community in Toronto. In line with our values of promoting equity, inclusion and the importance of social capital, we hope to break the stigma that so often surrounds the issue of homelessness. We would love to focus on working with different shelters in the future, and also connect with universities and colleges outside of York University. 

Other ways to get involved

Through volunteering with organizations like Fix the 6ix and Keep Toronto Warm, not only are students helping people in need, they’re also fostering empathy and self-efficacy. It is fantastic to see initiatives like these succeeding; they play a crucial role in raising homelessness awareness and challenging stigma and discrimination. 

In addition to volunteering, other things must be done. In our State of Homelessness in Canada 2016 report, we emphasize that ending homelessness means doing things differently, and not simply managing the problem through relying on emergency services and supports. An alternative is to look at approaches that emphasize prevention and affordable housing solutions. By building on the success of previous interventions that have proven to be successful, like Housing First for example, this can lead to real reductions in homelessness. If we truly want to prevent and end homelessness in Canada, we must also consider the unique needs and circumstances of key populations to create effective, thus tailored, responses to homelessness.

This year, the federal government launched a consultation process to inform Canada’s first National Housing Strategy. On November 22nd, What We Heard: Shaping Canada’s National Housing Strategy was released, reflecting the views, ideas and insights of thousands of Canadians who participated in the consultations. Many respondents agreed that a fundamental goal of a National Housing Strategy should be to end homelessness in Canada, and to prioritize the needs of Canadians experiencing homelessness. 

Although the consultation process is over, you can still write to your local MP, telling them that ending homelessness should be a top priority, and urging the Government to take immediate action on housing with a focused effort on ending homelessness. 

Education and advocacy are also critical tools that contribute to the national dialogue on ending homelessness. Having conversations with others about homelessness can help to dispell myths and challenge stereotypes. Homelessness, despite its often very visible presence in urban areas, remains a commonly misunderstood social issue. You can learn more about topics, solutions and plans to end homelessness in our About Homelessness section. 

We’ve also published blog posts in the past that provide more information about what you can do to address homelessness in your community: 

We would like to think Omar, Samantha and Awo for taking the time to meet with us and for sharing information about the work that they’re doing. If you’d like to learn more about Fix the 6ix and Keep Toronto Warm, visit their websites, linked throughout this blog post. 

University of Calgary; Turner Research & Strategy Inc.
November 30, 2016

On the Blog Series

As efforts to end youth homelessness gain traction across the country, finding and implementing interventions that work for young people becomes increasingly important for communities. Unfortunately, there remains a lot of work to do for those of us in the research community to capture effective practice, and translate it in terms that make sense to policy makers, service providers, youth and funders.

With the support of the Homeless Hub, Government of Alberta, the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, and the Safe Haven Foundation, this blog series aims to shed light on an evidence-based approach to serving youth grounded in the Core Principles of the Foyer Model from Calgary, AB called Haven’s Way.

Haven's Way Evaluation reportIn this first blog, I provide an overview on the Haven’s Way program model – a supportive housing program for youth operated by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary (BGCC) and the key findings of the evaluation research. The evaluation report is now available to download and will also be presented in today’s webinar at 1PM (ET), for which you can sign up here.

It is important to complement the research perspective with of those of people ‘living’ Haven’s Way: the staff and youth residing in this home. To this end, this blog is followed by one from Heidi Walter, Manager of Youth Housing at Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary, and Ange Neil, a youth participant. The fourth blog post will look at the perspective of the funder and will be written by Karen Sherbut, the co-founder of the Safe Haven Foundation.

In the final blog in the series, I will provide some of the key elements relevant to practitioners and funders interested in exploring the model’s application in their contexts. Here, I try to discern what key elements are ‘essential’ to the success of the program in achieving stability and independence for youth.

Introducing Haven’s Way

In 2015, at the request of Alberta Human Services and BGCC, I had the privilege to evaluate a long-standing program delivering innovative and effective supportive home-like environment to young women in Calgary since 2000. The residents at Haven’s Way share a duplex with Boys and Girls Clubs of Calgary staff – a House Parent and a Supportive Roommate. An additional Case Manager supports the live-in staff and the six youth in the program at any one time.

The program was founded by the Safe Haven Foundation to offer a home for young women (14-24) who are at risk of or experiencing homelessness. This risk has presented itself in many different ways including sexual, mental and physical abuse, sexual exploitation, neglect, mental health, drug addiction and involvement with street life. The program offers a safe home environment, surrounded by positive adult role models that support them to thrive in their daily lives and focus on their education.

Given the complexities of youth’s reported histories of family breakdown, trauma, mental health and addiction concerns prior to entering the program, Haven’s Way approach provides them with a home where can begin to heal, increase their level of education and develop the skills and supports that will transition them into adult self-sufficiency.  From this perspective, the program aligns with the premises of the Foyer model and its focus on healthy youth development.

The youth receive basic living supports, as well as case management that follows the stages of change framework, is trauma-informed, and youth-centered. Youth receive individualized, flexible support that tailored in focus and intensity, molding to participant life circumstance and changing interests.

Evaluation Highlights

The evaluation of the program included interviews with staff and youth (current and past participants), the network of professionals who provided referral and additional supports to the program, funders and other researchers.

In short, the 100-page evaluation report boils down to this: the program works. It works from the perspective of youth, staff and external stakeholders. These views are also validated by 15 years of data and case file documentation on 70 different youth who went through the program.

Here are some highlights:

  • Of the 18 youth evaluation participants, 100% reported improved housing stability, education and employment outcomes as result of program participation. In addition, 94% reported a very high level of satisfaction with the approach.
  • Staff and youth confirm that for 2014-15, all but one program participant residing at Haven’s Way maintained housing stability and pursued educational and employment goals actively.
  • Of the 11 graduates who left the program between 2012 and 2015, all but one had stable housing – living on their own rental accommodations, reuniting with their family or moving on to live with another natural support.

What’s important is to note that support doesn’t stop when youth move out. Although the 11 graduates had left an average of two years prior to the evaluation, staff maintained contact with them and were able to report the current housing, education and employment situation.

  • 63.3% of the 11 past participants had graduated high school, were pursuing post-secondary/trade, and one was in high school.
  • All but two (81.8%) were employed either part- or full-time
  • Only one (9.1%) of 11 exits was considered negative as the participant left without a transition plan and has since experienced episodes of homelessness and housing instability.

Essential Program Elements

Beyond assessing the program’s effectiveness and areas for improvement, I also tried to dig deeper into the key elements that made it successful. These are critical considerations if we consider expanding or replicating the model for other popula­tions. A number of features were mentioned as essential by youth, staff, the founders and other stakeholders, which are consistent with youth perspectives on program strengths, as summarized below. 

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness; York University
November 28, 2016

Indigenous homelessness in Canada is a massive ongoing problem.

One only has to look at population and percentage numbers to deduce this as fact. In urban settings, 1 in 15 Indigenous peoples are homeless, this compared to 1 in 128 for the general population. Put another way, in some Canadian cities such as Yellowknife or Whitehorse Indigenous peoples make up 90 percent of the homeless population. Places like Thunder Bay and Winnipeg fair somewhat better; an average of 50 percent of the homeless are Indigenous. In Toronto, Canada’s largest urban centre, Indigenous peoples constitute around 15 percent of the city’s homeless, even though they make up only around 0.5 of the total population. Clearly, it’s an out of proportion and big issue. 

The Indian Act, on and off reserve housing, programs aimed at curbing urban Indigenous homelessness, and the “system” in general has, it would seem, failed Indigenous peoples nation-wide and made them housing insecure from Vancouver to Halifax.

But is that it?

Can the problem of Indigenous homelessness be chalked up to what we see on Canadian streets? Is it just unsheltered Indigenous peoples sleeping on the nation’s city sidewalks, alcoves, and stairs? Or is there more going on? Better yet, do we as Canadians even understand what Indigenous homelessness is? Has it even been defined properly? Without knowing what Indigenous homelessness truly is, how are dollars and policy supposed to fix the problem? As the old adage goes, you can’t fight against something you don’t understand.

These are the hard questions and realizations the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness began pondering shortly after the 2012 launch of the Canadian Definition of Homelessness. We quickly realized that Indigenous homelessness didn’t fit neatly into the four typologies of the Canadian definition—Unsheltered, Emergency Sheltered, Provisionally Sheltered, and At Risk of Homelessness. There was something more going on, much more.

The Observatory concluded that to solve the problem of Indigenous homelessness we had try something new, we had to define Indigenous Homelessness from an Indigenous perspective. The old way just wasn’t working. To do this, we believed that we needed to listen to and consult with Indigenous peoples and let them tell us what they understood Indigenous homeless to be.

Who better than the Indigenous communities to define Indigenous homelessness?

Part of looking at Indigenous homelessness from an Indigenous perspective involved finding an Indigenous person with cultural competency who had both lived experience and academic training. In January 2016 the COH hired me, Jesse Thistle, a Cree-Metis-Scot PhD student and consumer survivor of the streets. The Observatory knew of my lived experience and scholastic training as they had worked with me since 2012 on the book Homelessness is Only One Piece of My Puzzle: Implications for Policy and Practice.

From the outset, I employed an Indigenous methodology in the work of building a definition of Indigenous Homelessness. On February 22nd 2016 Stephen Gaetz, the director of the Observatory, and I entered into a pipe ceremony with Cree knowledge keeper Jenny Blackbird at York University at the sacred fire at the site of the former Tipi behind Osgoode Hall.

Blackbird opened with a prayer and welcoming drum song. She said her spirit helper—the woodpecker—might appear, and if it did, it would be a really good sign to continue our work on the Indigenous homelessness definition.

No sooner than she finished the opening smudge and prayer did the woodpecker show up—we all understood that as a sign that the Observatory was meant to do this good work.

Blackbird also noted that we should be aware that the work is representative of bringing fire to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, meaning it will illuminate the issue of Indigenous Homelessness and create bonds of kinship between not only Indigenous peoples, but all Canadians. That comment stayed with me and got me thinking.

Community engagement and consultation have been key components of building the definition. First Nations, Metis, and Inuit populations in Canada are vast and diverse—north-south, east-west, rural-urban, and from all places in the country. From the outset, I tried to consult with all of these peoples.

In January 2016, we put a call out for ten National Steering Committee members. The ongoing job of the National Steering committee members has been to brainstorm with me to write draft definitions. They also edit and provide suggestions. It is a very loose, organic kind of consultation. The Steering Committee is comprised of scholars and frontline workers who work on Indigenous Homelessness or who have experienced homelessness. Among them are Trudeau scholar Julie Christiensen, whose research on the northern Dene peoples is invaluable, and Cree-Metis Althea Guiboche, the Bannock Lady of Winnipeg, who both feeds the Indigenous homeless of Winnipeg and knows homelessness from a lived perspective.

Beyond the Steering Committee, there are three more levels of community consultation. The first is the Regional Advisors Committee of 100, who, like the Steering Committee, work with me to develop draft definitions. The next level of consultation is the National Elders Council of 10. The Observatory understands that proper consultation on the Definition must involve the traditional knowledge keepers of Indigenous communities—those being Elders. The Observatory asked that each Steering member provide me with one Elder contact for the National Elders Council to advise us on the final drafts of the definition before it is launched in Fall 2017. We have around three Elders and are looking to expand.

The last level of consultation will be the Town Hall Meetings that the COH plans to open to the public sometime in the spring of 2017. Those who participate will have access to a finalized draft definition that has gone through the three levels of consultation from the Steering Committee, to the Regional Advisors, to the Elders Council.

The concept of “home”

""At the same time that we were setting up comprehensive consultation mechanisms, I was also gathering ideas for a definition of Indigenous homelessness. The breakthrough came when I began looking at the concept of “Home.”

Western understandings of “home” usually refer to a building or structure of habitation. In contrast, Indigenous worldviews see “home” as a web of relationships that involves connections to human kinship networks; relations to animals, plants, spirits, and elements; relationship to the Earth, lands, waters, and territories; and connection to traditional stories, songs, teachings, names, and ancestors. All these aspects of the circle of interconnectedness are known as “home” in Indigenous societies and worldviews. They are described in Cree and Michif as miyo wahkohtowin (kinship relationships), in Lakota as mitakuye oyasin (All My Relations), and in Inuktitut as ilagiit (kindred).

Thus, I came to the conclusion, with Althea’s and the Steering Committee’s help, that Indigenous “homelessness” has been incorrectly understood by westerners as “being without a structure of habitation” or “being roofless,” whereas Indigenous homelessness from an Indigenous perspective is really about being without “All My Relations.”

Being without a physical structure is only a secondary symptom of the real cause of Indigenous homelessness—being without social, spiritual, emotional, and physical relationships. I have since asked Indigenous consumer survivors of the streets if they agree with this interpretation and the majority agree that is accurate, and the loss of “All My Relations” has been caused by Canadian colonization.

We are currently on the 24th draft of the definition and we have collectively built it from the ground up. That is, from the perspective of Indigenous peoples and communities. We at the COH see ourselves as stewards or conveyors of this community understanding of Indigenous homelessness—they told us and we listened. I’ve presented the definition and its methodology at conferences across the country and some have said our approach is “new” or “fresh” or “innovative” but really it’s not, I simply asked the people who know the issue of Indigenous Homelessness best—Indigenous peoples—and asked them to define it.

If you’d like to take part in writing the Indigenous Homelessness definition and/or to be on our Regional Advisors’ Committee, contact me, Jesse Thistle, your favorite cousin, at jthistle@edu.yorku.ca.

Kinana’skomitin, Marcee, Miigwetch, Nia:weh, Ch’alechem, Kuk’stemic, Wela’lin, Thank you.

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.