10/27/2017 14:09 EDT | Updated 10/30/2017 10:12 EDT

Indigenous Homelessness Won't Be Solved Through Housing Alone

The basic lack of shelter is bad enough — but for Indigenous people it is accompanied by a host of serious issues.

Cassandra Lee via Getty Images

Jesse Thistle is a big guy. I might have thought of him as intimidating the first time I met him if it weren't for the colourful tropical shirt he was wearing. His fashion choices belied the serious issue we had come together to discuss: Indigenous homelessness in Canada.

Jesse is the Resident Scholar on Indigenous Homelessness at the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness. This makes him one of Canada's foremost experts on the subject, and for good reason: he's been homeless himself. On October 26 he published a new definition of Indigenous homelessness that he hopes will spur decision-makers to shift how they deal with Indigenous people who end up on the street.

Jesse was on and off the street for over 10 years. "I got into some serious trouble with the law, and I was court ordered to go to rehab and sort myself out," he told me. Eventually Jesse was able to get through rehab, and has now been sober since June 2008. "Part of me trying to figure myself out and my 12 steps was to go back and evaluate my past," Jesse said.

c/o Andreas Krebs
Jesse Thistle showing his penchant for tropical shirts.

What he found there was a deep sense of loss. "When I talk to residential school survivors, or people who have been taken by adoption like me and my brothers, our homelessness started in childhood when we were taken from our families," he said. "From there, the loss of culture, the loss of identity, not knowing what's your place in society, that leads to homelessness."

Overcoming Indigenous homelessness means figuring out how to overcome this loss. For Jesse, he was able to reconnect with his birth mother, who is Metis, and recentre himself. He learned about his Indigenous heritage, and was able to reconstruct his identity.

The basic lack of shelter is bad enough — but for Indigenous people it is accompanied by a host of serious issues.

As an Indigenous scholar, Jesse puts his own journey at the forefront in order to help others. His story can help explain how to think about why urban Indigenous people end up on the street at eight times the national average. When most of us think of homelessness we are actually thinking of "houselessness." The basic lack of shelter is bad enough — but for Indigenous people it is accompanied by a host of serious issues brought about by residential schools, the reserve system and all the other horrific things resulting from Canadian colonial policies.

To produce the Indigenous Definition of Homelessness, Jesse spoke with dozens of people from Indigenous communities across Canada. He found that a major factor in Indigenous homelessness is that people don't have what Jesse calls "webs of significance" — healthy social, spiritual and emotional relationships. Lacking these webs of significance is a result of Indigenous people being uprooted from their own homelands, moved onto smaller and smaller parcels of land, and having their culture devastated by decades of government policy aimed at their eradication. These colonial policies and actions changed how Indigenous people were able to build these webs, and in some cases — such as residential schools or the '60s scoop — nearly destroyed them.

Toronto Star via Getty Images
Warren Sturgeon has had a tough life and has spent time at the Native Men's Residence in Toronto, and turned things around.

This means tackling Indigenous homelessness needs a more comprehensive approach than the one currently on offer. "It's not just about being houseless," Jesse said. "If someone's Indigenous and you take them off the streets and you stick them in housing first, they will end up homeless again."

Where a housing-first strategy might work well for non-Indigenous people, Indigenous homeless people need what Jesse calls "wraparound" services to succeed. Places like Toronto's Na-me-res (Native Men's Residence) are succeeding at these approaches, including language restoration, connecting people back into healthy Indigenous communities, and helping Indigenous people uncover their identities through connection to spirituality and an Indigenous worldview. These services enable Indigenous people to start reweaving those webs of significance that so many of us take for granted.

The idea behind the definition of Indigenous homelessness is to spur the federal government and others who are holding the purse strings into spending money on programs that will effectively decolonize Canada. "It's getting the government to listen, and speaking in a language that the government can understand," says Jesse. "We need to get money into the hands of Indigenous service providers, people who are already doing this work, people who understand this."

Hopefully Jesse and others who have dedicated their lives to this important cause can get the government to listen.

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