Fort McMurray Indigenous homelessness housing project gets $1.1M from council

Three Wood Buffalo non-profits are working together to house Indigenous families, and at Monday’s council meeting the project received unanimous approval for $1.1 million in funding.

Tawâw Housing First Partnership will convert eight-plexes into housing, office space

An aerial view of downtown Fort McMurray on March 21st, 2018. (David Thurton/CBC)

Wood Buffalo municipal council has approved $1.1 million in funding for a new project to help house Indigenous families.

The money came from the federal government's second instalment of funding under the Reaching Home grant. The funding is limited to programs that assist people experiencing homelessness during the pandemic. 

Three non-profits are working on the project — Wood Buffalo Housing, McMurray Métis and Wood Buffalo Wellness. The three groups are collaborating under the name Tawâw Housing First Partnership. 

Tawâw is the Cree word for 'come in, welcome.' 

The project will see two eight-plexes owned by Wood Buffalo Housing converted into office space and housing. The project is aimed at addressing the disproportionate representation of Indigenous people within Wood Buffalo's homeless population. 

"It's important to recognize that the Indigenous people are home to this land," said Bryan Fayant, disaster and recovery strategist for the McMurray Métis. 

"But today we find some people without a home."

Everyone 'deserves a proper place to live'

Fayant added that there are currently 51 people waiting for placement in housing programs, and 32 identify as Indigenous. In a 2018 census, the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo found that 7.1 per cent of the population identifies as Indigenous. 

"We all agree each person deserves a proper place to live," Fayant said. He added that the housing will also include resources for residents, including cultural programs with elders, job search assistance and training. 

"Once people remove barriers to employment, they will be more receptive to being trained up for work, leading to greater chances of leaving the streets and going to the workforce," he said. 

Fayant said this will also make the region a leader in reconciliation. 

"It's about taking people from the streets, helping them get on their feet and become productive members of society. Really that's what we're after," he said.

Another important piece, he said, is the cultural component, "making sure they start to feel good about their identity and who they are." 

The renovation of the eight-plexes will create 14 suites, with 22 beds. The renovations are estimated to cost $500,000, with the rest of the grant going toward furniture, supplies and the lease payment.

'Right now all doors are closed'

Russell Cardinal, 57, has been living on the streets in Fort McMurray on and off for 15 years. He said he wants to be chosen to be part of the Tawâw project. 

Cardinal struggles with addiction.

"I'll do great for a little bit, and then I'll stumble, and I'm tired of the stumbling. I want to go forward." 

He said the housing would help him have a safe place to recovery and train for a job. 

"That would be so huge, because right now all doors are closed," Cardinal said. 

Jo-Anne Packham, executive director for the Wood Buffalo Wellness Society, said 59 per cent of the people screening for housing assistance are Indigenous. 

"It's very important that we have a program that is Indigenous-specific to address these issues," Packham said.  

Ideally the renovations will be finished in March, with people moving in in April, she said. 

The Tawâw Housing First Partnership will also work with other non-profits in the region. 

Susan Watson, program manager with the YMCA of Northern Alberta, called in to council to give her support to the project. She said 80 per cent of the YMCA's clients are Indigenous and there are a number of projects the YMCA offers that could help the residents housed by this program. 

"This project would also provide a culturally appropriate housing model for our clients." 

Coun. Verna Murphy said the housing would be "a tremendous resource to help those residents that just need a hand up, not a handout."