Winnipeg advocates help other cities bring Indigenous perspective to fight against homelessness

A group of Winnipeg researchers and community leaders are sharing a new guide, born out of their own experience, to help other cities Indigenize their own housing-first services.

Indigenizing Housing First report, published last week, offers guidelines for other cities to follow

The At Home/Chez Soi project, launched in 2009, helped Joe Hatch find housing. He now has his own place outside of that program, and works as a researcher and community liaison for the University of Winnipeg. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Joe Hatch says getting a new apartment through a program to fight homelessness was an experience that made him feel human again.

"When you're on the street you're not really a human being," he said. "You're just a piece of trash."

Getting a safe place of his own was freeing, Hatch says. But just as important were the spiritual teachings he got from the program, which incorporated local Indigenous practices such as medicine picking, sweat lodges and talking circles.

"The best part of it was being wanted. The second part of it was the new type of spirituality and a different world view," said Hatch, who is not Indigenous.

"It really helped with my anxiety. You just felt healthier when you left."

Hatch — who now has his own place outside of that program, and works as a researcher and community liaison for the University of Winnipeg — got that help a decade ago, as part of a project called At Home/Chez Soi.

The federally funded project was piloted in five Canadian cities in 2009 to try a then-radical idea: tackle homelessness by focusing on housing as the first step, and then make individualized supports and services available to people in need.

Now, a group of researchers and community leaders who worked on At Home/Chez Soi are sharing a new framework, born out of the Winnipeg experience, to help other cities bring Indigenous perspectives into their version of housing-first, and to tailor the approach to fit individual communities.

Hatch says getting a place of his own to stay was freeing. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Winnipeg's 2018 street census found 60 per cent of people experiencing homelessness are Indigenous and half have spent time in CFS care.

"We needed to take a largely top-down, federally developed project … to the Winnipeg site," said Jino Distasio, who heads up the U of W's Institute of Urban Studies and was the lead author on Indigenizing Housing First: Localized Approaches to Ending Homelessness.

"We knew, based on decades of experience in Winnipeg, that having strong community voices, community leadership and, in this case, Indigenous cultural inclusion at all elements," was important, he said. "We knew that Winnipeg would have to be a bit more distinctive."

The Winnipeg model

During the last Winnipeg street census in 2018, volunteers interviewed roughly 1,500 people experiencing homelessness. At the time, the author of the report on the effort said that number is likely a dramatic underestimation of the total number of people in the city who don't have secure housing.

Distasio says that when the At Home/Chez Soi project launched in 2009, the housing-first approach — based on a program called Pathways developed in New York City — was radical.

Bringing it to Winnipeg through the federal project meant reckoning with certain points of tension, including Canada's legacy of colonialism, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, Distasio said.

"Here was a federally funded program, based on an American model, dropping into Winnipeg — into the inner city, disproportionately represented by Indigenous community members who are homeless. And they said they had all the answers," he said.

"There were lots of tough questions. But I always say through these tough questions and through the tension and the challenges, Winnipeg was able to find the right path for this city."

Jino Distasio is an expert advisor with, an associate professor of geography at the University of Winnipeg and director of the Institute of Urban Studies. (University of Winnipeg)

The report, published by the University of Winnipeg's Institute of Urban Studies last week, outlines that path, which it calls a "community-strength approach." It's based on the Winnipeg experience of At Home/Chez Soi as well as input from a circle of elders.

Velma Orvis, an Ojibwe-Cree elder with Scottish and English heritage who sat on the council, said it's crucial to have elders involved in talking to people about the experience of being homeless.

"I think some of them will find it easier to talk to elders than somebody else," she said. "There's that comfort zone."

She feels the elder council had a powerful effect on the research and report.

"I think it was a good impact," she said.

'A historical basis for where we are'

The approach in the report is built upon four key principles for fighting homelessness: providing trauma-informed care, recognizing culture and diversity, being strengths-based and ensuring co-operation and collaboration.

The document lays out seven stages used in Winnipeg to achieve the community strength-focused model, from pre-project relationship building to delivering, monitoring and sustaining the project.

That means considering homeless people as whole people, and basing care plans on a recognition of the legacies of colonialism, the role of the federal government in residential schools and the Sixties Scoop, and the ongoing effects of the child and welfare system.

"The main people who experience homelessness in Canada are Indigenous people, and we have a historical basis for where we are today with regard to being disconnected from communities, from families," said Betty Edel, a co-author on the report who has worked in the homelessness sector in Winnipeg for years.

"We wanted to do it from the thought of recognizing how we got to be where we are, looking at it from colonization and the impacts that people continue to experience."

Seeing yourself in the services

Edel said some of the services they added were spiritual practices like medicine picking or sweat lodges.

Distasio said another key change was centring service delivery not in hospitals, but in the community. Where the original housing-first plan focused on mental health in clinical sense, the Winnipeg approach brought in community and spirituality.

In the 10 years since At Home/Chez Soi launched, housing-first has become the "gold standard" for fighting homelessness, Distasio said.

From the original five pilot cities, the approach has grown to see implementation in roughly 70 Canadian cities, he said, as well as urban centres around the world.

"We just hope that people understand that as housing first and other approaches get pushed into their community, that they just take a moment and pause, and think about it through the lens of the local," Distasio said.

"One of the great comments in the report, I think, is that … people just wanted to see themselves reflected in all aspects of the delivery of the services," he said. 

"It's really about creating better relationships with people and organizations to undo in some cases hundreds of years of trauma and mistrust or system."