03/04/2014 04:11 EST | Updated 05/04/2014 05:59 EDT

Street ceremonies make change for Toronto's indigenous homeless

Don (not his real name) says the smell of burning sage triggered something he calls 'blood memory' - a connection to his heritage and past that eventually drew him off the streets.

Don is a 39-year-old indigenous man based in Toronto who was homeless for over a decade.

He describes his experience with connecting to his culture as an awakening, that once you become aware of something, you can't unlearn it.

“People find it in Jesus, or in Muhammad, I found it in my Grandmothers and Grandfathers,” said Don.

Toronto's homelessness is on the rise, particularly among the indigenous population. It is estimated 15.4 per cent of the approximate 70,000 Indigenous residents are homeless.

A life Don knew all too well.

Cultural ceremonies changing lives

But cultural activities are taking place inside shelters, community centres, even underneath city bridges, in ravines, or behind buildings.

Referred to as 'street ceremonies' participants say these ceremonies are not only bringing indigenous spirituality to the most unusual places - they're also changing lives.  

Na-Me-Res, a shelter for Toronto's homeless, offers sweat lodges, healing circles, pipe ceremonies, fasting, naming ceremonies, and traditional storytelling — free from judgment or ridicule.

“We talk to all kinds of street people,” said JacquiLavalley, a 70-year-old Ojibway Elder, one of the three working with Na-Me-Res and their outreach team.

“A Grandmother's role is to not to give advice, but to listen. We do that through the use of medicine, through the smudging.”

In sometimes freezing temperatures, the Na-Me-Res outreach team – including Lavalley, Julien Lachance and Donna Bates — are dispatched to track the homeless, looking to deliver warm socks, hats, backpacks, and even providing a shoulder to cry on.

Cruising through the city (sometimes with Metallica playing) a bulk of their conversations are about their clients — who's missing, who fell sick, and those that have died. Sometimes they're calling hospitals - or even morgues - to find their clients.

Toronto's Indigenous homeless are from all age groups, some are older who may have once attended a residential school. There's a younger crowd who may have been adopted. But many have two things in common; substance abuse and a disconnect from their culture.

How Na-Me-Res helped Don rebuild his life

Don credits the staff at Toronto's Na-Me-Res​'s residential life skills program, called Sagatay, with teaching him about his heritage and saving his life.

Growing up in Toronto's Regent Park area, Don said his early years were hard. As a young boy, he worked paper routes to help pay his family's rent. His mother was terminally ill with lung disease and emphysema and his grandmother and younger sister also needed looking after.

But Don also struggled with his own identity. His mother was Ojibway, his biological father was Jamaican and for a time he had an abusive step-father who was East Indian.

His neighbourhood was rich in diversity, making it easy for him explore several religions. Don said his indigenous heritage always interested him but he knew little about it.

Meanwhile, financial hardship at home continued and Don started to buy and sell drugs in order to make ends meet.

But when a 2001 attack by a group of men left him with a traumatic brain injury, Don's inability to work drove him deep into dope dealing, life on the streets, and eventually prison.

In denial about this brain injury, he typically self-medicated to ease his chronic pain.

Don said he spent many years following different religions and doubting he had enough indigenous blood to embrace his own Indigenous culture.

But he says Sagatay helped him tear down those walls and rebuild his life.

"Those medicines were put there for a reason, for our healing, to bring us back to what's right, to cleanse us,” said Don.

Today he accepts his brain injury and works for a non-profit organization. He also applied for disability benefits for the times he can't work.

He's saving up money to rent a place he can hopefully call his own.

After he leaves Sagatay in the Spring he plans to learn more about his family ties and he wants to help others.

As he leaves the interview, he says 'Bamapii' which means 'see you later' in the Ojibwe language,  the same phrase many indigenous homeless use with the the Na-Me-Res team.