This blog presents reflections and findings from our new report Revisioning Coordinated Access: Fostering Indigenous Best Practices towards a Wholistic Systems Approach to Homelessness. The report was co-authored by the Social Planning and Research Council of Hamilton – Indigenous Reaching Home Team and Hub Solutions, a social enterprise of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.
This past April marked the first full year of implementing Canada’s new national homelessness strategy – Reaching Home. One of the most significant additions to Canada’s new strategy is the inclusion of a definition for the Indigenous experience of homelessness. By distinguishing the unique factors and experiences of homelessness for Indigenous peoples through this definition, a much-needed signal is sent to all Reaching Home communities that unique solutions and supports to address and eliminate Indigenous homelessness is necessary.
While the inclusion of this definition within the Reaching Home directives is a welcomed first step, there is still significant work to be done in ensuring Indigenous leadership and communities are adequately and sustainably resourced to support their community members experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
Of particular concern for Indigenous communities is how Indigenous homelessness will be addressed and eliminated through the Reaching Home directive to Designated Communities to design and implement a local homelessness system – coordinated access. As these communities prepare their next steps towards implementing coordinated access, it is imperative we listen to and heed the guidance of Indigenous leadership.
Over the course of a year, our research team engaged with Indigenous community members and leadership in Hamilton, Ontario as well as Indigenous experts on homelessness across Canada. Through in person gatherings, teleconferences, and surveys, we discussed and examined how coordinated access systems will and are impacting Indigenous peoples and communities. The results shared in our report highlight not only gaps and challenges Indigenous communities are facing but, most importantly, the opportunities designing a homelessness serving system from the ground up has for Indigenous and non-Indigenous communities.
Taking cues from the Homelessness Partnering Strategy (Canada’s previous national homelessness strategy), Reaching Home recognizes the importance of local solutions to eliminating homelessness in each community while encouraging community-wide planning and strategizing. A community-wide approach will be achieved through the mandatory design and implementation of a coordinated access system in each Reaching Home Designated Community.
While a systematic approach to addressing homelessness has many benefits, Indigenous leaders have significant concerns about who has been involved in the work to design and implement these systems. A look across Canada’s current systems (education, justice, health, etc.) reveal disturbing trends of consistently disadvantaging, disempowering and discrimination against Indigenous peoples and their communities. The development of a coordinated system in any community must include Indigenous leadership that is equitably and sustainably resourced to co-lead this work.
One of the most strongest themes revealed in our local and national conversations was the importance on relationships in addressing homelessness, not only on the frontlines but across organizations and between community entities. Indigenous community leaders across Canada indicated a lack of clarity within Reaching Home’s directives specifically around the role of local Indigenous leadership in developing the coordinated access system in their community. For example, how are Designated Communities ensuring the selection and use of a common assessment tool is culturally appropriate? How will the tool assess the unique factors involved in Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness, such as the 60’s Scoop and intergenerational trauma?
Which assessment tool is chosen and how it is used is fundamental to how a community assesses the depth of need of individuals or families experiencing homelessness. To properly assess the needs of Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness, it is critical Indigenous leadership is not only called upon to engage and provide input on how to fit Indigenous peoples needs into a process that has already been chosen, but is adequately resourced and supported to lead this work from the beginning. The recommendations included in our report highlight the urgent need for Employment Services & Development Canada to co-develop with Indigenous experts on homelessness a framework to better articulate the roles and responsibilities of Designated and Indigenous community entities in the design and implementation of coordinated access.
DATA IS POWER
A well-functioning coordinated access system requires real-time collection and use of reliable data. Existing national data collection initiatives, such as the Point in Time Count, have exposed the disproportionate number of Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness in Canada. In every province, Indigenous peoples are significantly more likely to experience or be at risk of homelessness than non-Indigenous peoples. Based on national data initiatives, we can safely presume many (if not all) Reaching Communities will be collecting significant amounts of Indigenous data. This is highly concerning for Indigenous leaders as Reaching Home has primarily empowered Designated Communities (almost exclusively non-Indigenous) to lead the design and implementation of data protocols for coordinated access without any guiding principles as to how to engage with Indigenous data.
Data is power. The ability to collect, analyze and use data is a significant advantage for all communities in planning how to address and eliminate homelessness. Through Reaching Home, Designated Communities have been given the sole power to determine what data is collected, how and where it’s collected, as well as who will interpret and report on the data. As voiced in our report, the lack of clear guiding principles on the collection and use of Indigenous data has, as history has shown us, significant potential to harm Indigenous peoples and communities. It is imperative for ESDC to collaborate with Indigenous homelessness experts and leading Indigenous data sovereignty researchers on developing appropriate data principles for Reaching Home.
RECONCILIATION – THE WAY FORWARD FOR ALL OF US
As communities across Canada (and globally) call for the end of systemic and structural racism, particularly anti-Indigenous and anti-Black, the release of this report could not be timelier. A year of research and engagement with local and national Indigenous leaders addressing homelessness have overwhelmingly called for the meaningful and sustainably resourced inclusion of Indigenous leadership at every stage of coordinated access. Building another system without clearly defining and resourcing the role of Indigenous leadership will be to the direct detriment of Indigenous peoples as well as the overall health and well-being of entire communities.
As recognized in the Truth and Reconciliations Calls to Action and reiterated in the demands of Activists across Canada, we can no longer accept the existing systems, built on principles of white supremacy and anti-Indigenous and anti-Black racism. We must (re)build our social systems from the ground up with all of our voices included. The building of local homelessness systems through Reaching Home is a unique opportunity to instill principles of equity and empowerment from the start.
Although the recommendations of our report focus on homelessness, the basic principles within each of our recommendations are applicable across every sector and system in Canada – invest in and empower Indigenous leadership and communities.
Victoria Bomberry (Mohawk, Six Nations of the Grand River)