Home and Native Land: Aboriginal Young Women and Homelessness in the City

To explore the complexity of the experience of homeless young women over time.

Literature background:

In Canadian urban centres (over 100 000), fifty percent of Aboriginal children live in low-income housing as compared to 21.5% of non-Aboriginal children (UNICEF, 2009). Poverty, along with poor quality housing (CMHC, 2003), underlies health and wellness disparities at all ages and in all populations. Critically however, Aboriginal children and youth face increased social and familial vulnerability rooted in the cumulative effects of historical oppression, ongoing structural, health and social inequities and threats to cultural continuity (Adelson, 2005; Kirmayer, Brass & Tait, 2000) in spite of the cultural and relational strengths available. The Canadian Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples concluded in 2003 that: “Aboriginal youth living in urban areas face major disadvantages in comparison with other Canadian youth when measured against every social and economic indicator” (p. 86). Many Aboriginal youth are uprooted repeatedly throughout their childhoods, influenced by difficulty paying rents, poor quality housing and placement in child welfare care (Berman, Alvernaz Mulcahy, Edmunds, Haldenby and Lopez, 2009; Baskin, 2007; Clatworthy, 2008). Aboriginal youth describe a cyclical pattern; removal from home, returning from foster care if their parent/guardian complies with demands for often culturally irrelevant treatment or parenting programs; re-placed if parents “fail to accede;” placement in other relatives homes if they prove “difficult” in care, often followed by group custody if their parents or relatives, in the eyes of social service agencies, resist required programming or “slack off ” in any way (Baskin, 2007).

Aboriginal youth and homelessness: 

Aboriginal people as a whole are also over-represented in the homeless population in Edmonton (ranging between 43% and 38% - self identified) (Edmonton Joint Planning Committee on Housing, 2002, 2008). Aboriginal youth experience a higher risk of becoming homeless as compared to other youth in Canada; they are greatly over-represented in the homeless youth population and the rate of concealed homelessness is high (Baskin, 2007). On the street, they experience high rates of mental health concerns, including depression and conduct disorders (MacNeil, 2008; Whitbeck et al, 2008). Based on her research with eleven homeless Aboriginal youth, Gilchrist (1995) concludes that reasons offered for the initiation of homelessness. In an earlier article the authors reported that of the nine Aboriginal young women in their study, all but one had family members and caretakers with residential school backgrounds (Ruttan et al, 2008). Aboriginal girls have reported uprooting as a pervasive and recurrent feature of their lives (Berman et al, 2009, p. 423). For instance, Brown et al (2007) found that several of the Aboriginal youth in their study had a family history of homelessness, that temporary living situations were normative, and that homeless youth had concerns regarding personal safety, a lack of sufficient autonomy and the need for support networks. Cultural connection for homeless Aboriginal youth is a key factor in healing and recovery; disconnection leads to street entrance and reconnection to healing and leaving (Baskin, 2007; Brunanski, 2009; Ruttan et al, 2008).


The sample consisted of eighteen young women suggested by service agencies and other youth as beginning to transition out of homelessness. Purposive sampling was used. Nine of the participants self-identified as Aboriginal.


This analysis is based on data from a larger study conducted by faculty from the Department of Human Ecology at the University of Alberta and a community research partner, Native Counseling Service of Alberta (NCSA). The larger study addressed the needs of homeless female youth and young women in Edmonton, Alberta and the assets they used to survive while homeless and to make transitions of homelessness (Munro, LaBoucane-Benson & Ruttan, 2007; Munro, LaBoucane-Benson, Ruttan & Cardinal, 2008)


Many of the participants in this study indicated that their family was homeless or at least somewhat homeless while they were growing up; several participants mentioned having felt homeless their whole lives. Multiple moves were common along with periods of living with extended family members who often took on a variety of flexible family roles. Several participants indicated that being at least “somewhat homeless” was not unusual in their community and not something that made them feel different than others. While homelessness did not necessarily disrupt family ties often severe drug abuse led to estrangement. Young women who went through periods of homelessness and eventually acquired a place to stay, a “home”, indicated that having a home was often stressful, sometimes more so than not having a home. Reasons given included the high costs of rent, the often poor condition of apartments available through either public housing programs or affordable private rental, budgeting and planning given very low incomes, frustration regarding the sharing of responsibilities with partners and/or roommates including housework and childcare, the use of substances by others in the home and the influence of friends and relatives who wanted to stay with them. At the same time, for almost all participants at least some family members were credited with supporting them, with getting them to think about transition, not only in terms of a place to stay but also with support for healing and productive activities. Most participants in the larger study mentioned the role of spirituality in leading them through survival and on towards leaving homelessness. Belief and praying were cited as getting one though when they were estranged from their families, “at least you’ll know someone cares.”


Safe and secure homes and home places contribute to health and identity for all people. In Canada, Aboriginal people have a history of lost homes, of dispossession, and of removal from lands integral to cultural safety, with grave consequences for health and identity as a result. This reality cannot be divorced from any discussion of Aboriginal homelessness whether for youth or adults, men or women, urban or reserve settings. Finding home is haunted by historical factors which mirror the dispossession and relocation that took place in Aboriginal homelands. In that context Aboriginal families have maintained and developed important strengths; they have also been and continue to be affected by many losses including home loss. Where you come from is not identical with having a place to stay, but it is an important aspect of understanding that allows for beginning to understand home loss and, for our participants, to move towards homefulness. As these young women have experienced, this issue has become complicated for many Aboriginal youth affecting the balance necessary for secure homes and healthy identities. Youth in our study look for answers in order to move out of homelessness and find homes and enhanced futures for themselves and their families. While there are limitations to this study in terms of sample size, the policy implications of these findings are significant and need to be addressed in future research.

Summary Credit:
Homelessness-Related Research Capacities in Alberta: A Comprehensive Environmental Scan, prepared by Dr. Katharina Kovacs Burns, MSc, MHSA, PhD and Dr. Solina Richter, PhD, RN for The Alberta Homelessness Research Consortium (2010)

Publication Date: 
Journal Name: 
First Nations Child & Family Caring Society of Canada
Edmonton, AB, Canada