Housing program failing Indigenous clients, report finds

A new report concludes many Indigenous people in Ottawa are "no better off" after going through the city's housing program than they are in homeless shelters.

Nearly half of Indigenous clients housed through city-run program end up back in shelters

Tina Slauenwhite, housing first director at Ottawa's Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, said there are a number of factors contributing to the poor retention rate among Indigenous clients. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

A new report concludes many Indigenous people in Ottawa are "no better off" after going through the city's housing first program than they are in homeless shelters.

According to figures submitted by the City of Ottawa to the federal government in its latest annual progress report — a requirement for housing first funding — nearly half of the 69 homeless First Nations, Inuit and Métis adults who took part in the city-run housing program between Oct. 1, 2015, and Oct. 1, 2016, were either evicted or opted out of the program and ended up back at a shelter.

It's not having an impact.- Kevin Page, IFSD

"Among Aboriginal and Inuit adults, the success rate in keeping people housed for six months is a dismal 54 per cent — roughly equivalent to the outcome over the same time period when there was no intervention," notes the report, released Tuesday by the Institute of Fiscal Studies and Democracy (IFSD). 

The success rate among non-Indigenous adults and youth over the same time period was 78 per cent. For families, the success rate was a perfect 100 per cent.

IFSD president Kevin Page, a former parliamentary budget officer, said the contrast suggests the city isn't providing enough support to Indigenous clients.

"Most people are going to find it a major disappointment," Page said. "It's not having an impact."

Allowance insufficient, agencies say

The city works with three Indigenous organizations to find housing for homeless clients through its housing first program. Seven other agencies deliver the same service to non-Indigenous adults, youth and families, although Indigenous clients can access the program through any agency they choose.

Tina Slauenwhite, housing first director at Ottawa's Wabano Centre for Aboriginal Health, said there have been success stories, but there are also challenges: Slauenwhite said there isn't enough affordable housing available in the city, and said the city's $250 monthly allowance for housing first clients is insufficient.

Homeless clients are sometimes placed in rooming houses rather than their own apartments, Slauenwhite said, or placed with roommates.

"Those relationships [with roommates] are breaking down," Slauenwhite said. "We're then having to re-house people."

Cultural differences

Slauenwhite also pointed out that Indigenous tenants often invite friends and relatives to live with them because that's part of their culture.

"What happens then is that there's a lot more noise in the unit," she said. "You have more people that are living there than is on the lease."
Only 54 per cent of Indigenous adults housed through the city-run program between October 2015 and October 2016 remained housed for more than six months. (Ashley Burke/CBC News)

That can lead to eviction, Slauenwhite said.

Frances Daly, manager of Oshki Kizis Lodge, the shelter for Minwaashin Lodge, said there have been cases where prospective landlords have turned away Indigenous tenants.

"The barrier of racism is significant in Ottawa, as in any major city in Canada," she said. "That makes it difficult to find housing for people."

Some successes

Cindi Rye, director of programs with Tungasuvvingat Inuit, a community centre for Inuit living or staying in Ottawa, said the housing first program has benefited many of her clients.

We have certainly had some successes.- Cindi Rye, Tungasuvvingat Inuit

"We have certainly had some successes," Rye said. "However, I am cautious because there are difficulties in applying this program. And there are difficulties finding the houses to put people in in the first place."

According to the IFSD report, as poorly as the housing first program served Indigenous clients last year, it was an improvement over the previous year.

City data shows that of 27 Indigenous adults housed through the program between Oct. 1, 2014, and Oct. 1, 2015, only 10 remained housed for six months.

"I think any new initiative as it rolls out is going to have to be tweaked, and there are going to be things that need to be improved," said Daly. "So I think we're kind of learning as we go."

The city of Ottawa said it's looking forward to reviewing the report, but noted that overall the city's housing first program currently has a retention rate of 85 per cent.

"Housing services would defer to the expertise and experience of our Indigenous partners to provide comments on the challenges Indigenous housing first program participants face in retaining their housing and achieving housing stability," said Shelley VanBuskirk, the city's director of housing, in an email.