Let Them Lead: Tackling Indigenous Homelessness with Culturally Relevant Services

by Melissa Slauenwhite (Indigenous Affairs Student Initiative)

IASI is a newly-established graduate student-led initiative that aims to provide a platform to discuss Indigenous issues from a policy-focused lens. In conjunction with our Advisory Board, consisting of Bob Rae, Grand Chief Arlen Dumas and Professor Douglas Sanderson, we seek to promote awareness of Indigenous issues and encourage the enrolment of Indigenous students at the Munk School.

Homelessness is a salient issue in all provinces across Canada, impacting the growing urban centers such as Toronto.  Indigenous peoples living in urban centres, have the largest threat of becoming homeless, and are vastly overrepresented in the statistics of homelessness throughout the country. Recent survey data finds that people who identify as Indigenous are twice as likely to experience homelessness as opposed to their non-Indigenous counterparts. In addition, Indigenous Canadians are much more likely than non-Indigenous Canadians to make use of emergency shelters, experience street homelessness or the need to stay with friends or family due to the lack of stable housing. The statistics for urban homelessness are even worse, with estimates that Indigenous peoples are eight times more likely to experience homelessness in urban centres. Even more troubling is the evidence that Indigenous people continue to face many of the continuities of colonization that result in the aftermath of mental health issues, substance abuse, lack of access to education and job skills, as well as physical and sexual abuse. All these attributes are strongly associated with homelessness. 

            One of the ways in which the federal government has tried to tackle this growing issue is by enacting the community-based program Reaching Home: Canada’s Homelessness Strategy. Reaching Home strives to support the National Housing Strategy by providing stable and affordable housing to Canada’s most vulnerable populations. The Reaching Home program primarily employs a “Housing First” approach –  focusing on moving people that experience chronic homelessness into safe and stable housing first as a means to foster improved quality of life and self-sufficiency. Reaching Home has also dedicated funding specifically for Indigenous community-based programs that provide culturally relevant resources. This funding is critical in providing services that are specific to the Indigenous individuals experiencing homelessness, further advancing Canada’s promises in reconciling with its colonial history .

One such organization is the Na-Me-Res (Native Men’s Residence) Indigenous men’s shelter located in downtown Toronto[i]. Na-Me-Res operates three facilities that offer temporary, transitional, and long-term housing primarily to Indigenous men experiencing homelessness in the city. As an Indigenous-lead organization, the programming offered is centered around cultural learning that helps clients reconnect to their Indigenous identities as part of their healing process. Between April 2018 and March 2019, Na-Me-Res served 682 men experiencing some form of homelessness in Toronto. 

Na-Me-Res offers a variety of programming to help clients reconnect with their cultural roots through services such as access to Elders and Cree and Ojibway language classes. Other programs offered include the M’shko Bimaadziwin (Strengthening Life) program, which provides support specific to two-spirited people experiencing homelessness, and the Mino Kaanjigoowin (MK) (Changing My Direction in Life) program, which provides clients with opportunities to visit First Nations communities across the province and take classes in traditional activities like drum-making and beading. The MK program also offers a variety of mindfulness and trauma workshops that help clients understand their trauma and move forward in healing. At Sagatay, is a transitional shelter where clients take part in the Apaenmowineen (Having Confidence in Myself) life skills program that teaches practical skills such as healthy living, employability and financial literacy, as well as traditional teachings through sharing circles, community gardening and drumming.

To try and prevent previously incarcerated Indigenous men from falling into homelessness, Na-Me-Res also works directly with Ontario Ministry of Correctional Services through the Native Inmate Liaison Officers (NILOs) program. NILOs work with inmates within Ontario’s provincial facilities, providing cultural support while incarcerated. NILOs help former inmates integrate back into society and break the ties between histories of incarceration and homelessness. Na-Me-Res personally holds contracts with two NILOs working with Indigenous inmates at both the Toronto South Detention Centre and the Ontario Correctional Institute in Brampton.

            Steve Teekens is the Executive Director at Na-Me-Res, and he spoke out about what he sees in the future of Indigenous homelessness. He pointed to the critical need for more Indigenous-run halfway houses across the country. As many Indigenous peoples that are experiencing homelessness across Canada are struggling with substance abuse, the lack of harm-reduction shelters for Indigenous communities has created a significant gap in support services for this population. Through federal funding from Corrections Canada, Na-Me-Res offers only 5 halfway house beds in their Sagatay shelter. All their other facilities are abstinence based, but Teekens states that Na-Me-Res is working to build their own harm-reduction shelter, which he hopes will be operational within the next three years.

            Culturally relevant services, like those offered through the Na-Me-Res organization, are critical to addressing the specific circumstances that lead to Indigenous homelessness. Eighty five men were transitioned to safe and stable housing through Na-Me-Res last year alone. Teekens also points to a need for more research into the necessity of Indigenous run halfway houses across the country. Currently, there are only 7 halfway houses for Indigenous clients in Canada, and only 4 of these are run by Indigenous organizations. However, Indigenous organizations continue to face the challenge of  limited funding for services that are created and run by Indigenous communities. As Canada continues on its journey to reconciliation, it is crucial for the federal government to increase funding and resources capacity to support organizations across the country like Na-Me-Res.

[i] Information about Na-Me-Res’ facilities and programs were obtained from their 2019 Annual Report, and with the consultation of Steve Teekens, Executive Director. To receive a copy of the Annual Report please contact general@nameres.org


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