The western definition of homelessness does not address the distinct experiences of Indigenous Peoples. Homelessness for Indigenous Peoples goes deeper and includes their separation from connections to land, place, water, family, animals, languages, cultures, and identities (Aboriginal Standing Committee on Housing and Homelessness, 2012; Thistle, 2017). It also includes examining the legacy impacts of colonialism and recognizing that current policies and practices are grounded in historical and structural racism.
Indigenous women and families are at high risk for racist and violent practices and require particular attention to their gendered and cultural experiences when designing housing programs.
In response, we began a study in Calgary, Alberta where we partnered with the Aboriginal Standing Committee on Housing and Homelessness, and two women Elders to understand and examine the structural violence and racism experienced by Indigenous women in their attempts to sustain safe housing for themselves and their children.
Our team met with 12 women living in emergency shelters or in unstable housing with children in their care. Elders were present during the interviews and questions focussed on homelessness, racism, intergenerational trauma, violence, supports for sustaining housing and their hopes and dreams for their future and their families.
What does the research say?
In our report, Understanding Homelessness for Urban Indigenous Families: How Can We Envision Gendered and Culturally Safe Responses, we recognized five themes affecting Indigenous women in the context of family homelessness: jurisdictional separation; racism; lack of safety; the need for family and limited opportunities to heal from trauma. What continued to appear during our interviews was repeated issues with assessment and housing prioritization and the child welfare system. The women also discussed multiple experiences of racism from landlords.
It became evident from our research that structural violence is present in policies that impede women’s opportunities to exit homelessness and heal from trauma. This structural violence normalizes racism and is ‘invisible’ because it goes largely unchallenged. The women in our study experienced structural violence and racism in the housing market, from child protective services, and in the homeless-serving system, all of which are intersecting and interconnected. Aspects of these systems affect the potential of these families to be safe and achieve their desired futures, as women are forced to internalize and accept racist and harmful approaches. Many governmental and systemic policies reflect this legacy of injustice and contain representations of the ‘problems’ they appear to address, rather than serve as responses to problems that need to be solved.
How do we begin looking at solutions?
Confining our understanding of homelessness to the Western concept of housing access, would limit our recommendations to improvements:
- to housing systems;
- to health and safety standards;
- and to bridging gaps between sectors
However, when we understand that homelessness for Indigenous families is grounded in hundreds of years of racist and discriminatory policies that exclude and forcibly marginalize Indigenous Peoples, we start to shift how we think about solutions. Solutions for Indigenous families have to acknowledge and respond to deeply rooted structural violence and focus on changes to systems and structures.
The Aboriginal Standing Committee on Housing and Homelessness has initiated several projects as a follow-up, including one to assess Calgary’s Indigenous specific housing supply and one to develop a housing model that will be ‘family first’ and grounded in Indigenous ways.
Safe housing is a human right
We believe that safe housing must be understood as a basic human right in which every person has the right to dignified living (Canada Without Poverty, 2019). This approach would disrupt the cycle of structural violence by demanding anti-oppression laws, prioritizing gendered and cultural responses with full inclusion of families, languages, traditions, kinship and community supports. Elders and spiritual leaders, and flexible resources to keep families together, grounded in healing, not just housing, are necessary to respond to this complex and pervasive issue.
Aboriginal Standing Committee on Housing and Homelessness, (2012). Plan to End Aboriginal Homelessness in Calgary. http://www.aschh.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/ASCHH-Aboriginal-Plan-Final.pdf
Canada Without Poverty. (2019). The Right to Housing. Retrieved from http://www.cwp- csp.ca/poverty/a-human-rights-violation/the-right-to-housing/
Thistle, J.A. (2017). Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada. Toronto, ON: Canadian Observatory on Homelessness Press. Retrieved from https://homelesshub.ca/sites/default/files/COHIndigenousHomelessnessDefinition.pdf