Thunder Bay·Audio

4 faces of homelessness: Kathleen – when homelessness is about more than just housing

For Indigenous people, homelessness is about more than a lack of safe, affordable housing, said homelessness scholar and former homeless man Jesse Thistle.

Part 3 of a 5-part CBC Thunder Bay series exploring homelessness in the northwestern Ontario city

Kathleen Chief said she knows how to take care of herself on the land. Living in the city, however, she said she feels stuck between worlds. (Facebook)

Kathleen Chief is a survivor of the Sixties Scoop.

"I was taken from my home when we were five and six, and we were put in all these foster homes," she said. "Honest to God, I think I've been in every school from Sioux Lookout to Kenora, Winnipeg.  Detention centres, group homes."

Chief is a sexual assault survivor with a history of self-harm, and she lives with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues, she said.

Three years ago, she was living in a duplex in Thunder Bay with her husband, she added, but he died in April 2016, and she couldn't manage on her own.

"The place where we lived was too expensive," she said. "I couldn't pay my rent. My hydro was lapsing.  That kind of thing. … I wasn't mentally capable of taking care of all my day-to-day needs.  He did that for me."

Chief needs to be in Thunder Bay because she needs access to treatment for her health conditions, but she said she feels stuck between worlds in the city.

'It is a culture shock'

"I know for me to go in the bush, I can take care of myself no problem," she said.  "But when you come to the city like this, you can't, because you're not able to go and just build a home like right there."

"You can't go and trap animals around you, you know? It is a culture shock," she continued. "When you come to the city, you kind of get down on yourself because you can't provide for your family because you don't know the things that you've grown accustomed to."

Chief's story is a classic example of Indigenous homelessness, said Jesse Thistle, who wrote the definition of the term used by Canadian scholars of the topic.

Thistle is both a scholar of homelessness and a former homeless person himself.

Indigenous homelessness is about something much more profound than a lack of shelter, he said.

It has to do with a disconnection from the land, culture, language, history and traditions that give people their identities and their lives meaning.

"All those land-based teachings … were eradicated with the expansion of the settler state and the extinguishment of title that pushed Indigenous people into reserve settings or marginalized them on their own land," he said.  "And they can't use the land the way they used to in a lot of cases, right? So that's one huge trauma that's been endured by a lot of Indigenous people's across the country."

Jesse Thistle is a scholar of Indigenous homelessness who used to be homeless himself. He said Indigenous homelessness begins long before a person ends up in an emergency shelter.

For Indigenous people, Thistle said, homelessness ends with being on the streets of Thunder Bay, Toronto or Vancouver. But the root of it is the disintegration of families when children are taken from their homes at three or four or five years of age.

"From the people that I've spoken to, most of them describe it that way," he said.  "They're saying, 'well I lost my language. I lost my culture. I lost everything I knew when I was a child, and I was left rudderless and listless throughout my life, and that led me to make a bunch of choices — or [I was] in situations where I couldn't make choices — that ended up in me being homeless.'"

The solution to homelessness for people like Chief, Thistle added, goes far beyond simply finding them housing.

"She needs to be reconnected with her kin or have kin supports around her," he said.  "She needs to understand her language and how that's valuable.  She needs to know her history."

Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services is about to build a supportive housing facility in Thunder Bay that will provide those kinds of culturally relevant services to Indigenous youth.

It's partnering with the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre on a structure on Junot Avenue that's slated to open in early 2020.

Thunder Bay city council just gifted a parcel of land for the building.

Justin Marchand is the executive director of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services. The organization is partnering with the Thunder Bay Indigenous Friendship Centre on a new, 20-unit housing facility on Junot Avenue that's slated to open in early 2020. (Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services )

"The first thing is providing a roof over a person's head," said Justin Marchand, the executive director of the housing group, which administers housing program funding for off-reserve Indigenous people in Ontario. 

"But we know that it's more than just about housing. It's providing a holistic service and wrap-around services … and then there will be referrals out to specialists in the community where those specialized services are needed."

But the building Marchand is speaking of will only house around 20 people — a tiny fraction of the more than 300 Indigenous people who are currently homeless in Thunder Bay, according to numbers from April's point-in-time count.

The cost of housing all of the Indigenous people in the province who currently live off-reserve and lack safe, affordable housing is at least $2 billion or $3 billion, Marchand added.  That's 100 times his organization's budget.

The province and federal governments, he said, aren't willing to give him that much.

"The response often comes that there's limited financial resources and that we have to maximize or prioritize the use of what we do have, which I think we do an excellent job at," Marchand said.

Asked why the federal government is not providing the funding that Marchand said is necessary, a spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada told CBC that Indigenous housing is a priority under its new national housing strategy.

The government, it said, has signed a $4.2 billion deal with Ontario to improve housing in the province, and that money will start to flow in April 2019.


  • A previous version of this story said that Ontario Aboriginal Housing would need 10 times its current budget to house all of the Indigenous people in the province who currently live off-reserve and lack safe, affordable housing. In fact, it would cost approximately 100 times the organization's current budget.
    Oct 18, 2018 5:11 PM ET