Aboriginal homelessness draws scrutiny

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      When staff presented the final numbers from a local homeless count to Vancouver council earlier this month, they gave a profile of an average person without a home in the city.

      The municipal government’s advocate for the homeless, Judy Graves, told council if they were to see that typical homeless individual on the street that morning, they would likely find him to be male and in his 40s. He would likely suffer from an addiction, a mental illness, and a serious medical condition, and would have experienced severe trauma. He would also likely be aboriginal.

      According to the 24-hour homeless count conducted on March 27, 2012, aboriginal people continue to be overrepresented in Vancouver’s homeless population, comprising 32 percent of that group, while being just two percent of the general population.

      “We make up such a small percentage of the general population, but among the homeless, it’s a significant portion of the population,” Patrick Stewart, chair of the Aboriginal Homelessness Steering Committee, told the Georgia Straight in an interview.

      But a recent public-opinion survey conducted by Angus Reid for the Greater Vancouver Regional Steering Committee on Homelessness suggested that awareness of this reality is limited.

      Stewart noted that when survey respondents were asked what should be done about homelessness in the Lower Mainland, 58 percent said more affordable housing with support services should be provided. When it comes to addressing aboriginal homelessness, however, the majority of respondents said they would support other options, such as increased community development supports like job training and employment opportunities.

      While Stewart called these kinds of services a “needed response” to aboriginal homelessness, he argued they’re just a small part of the solution. He noted that about 5,000 people are on the waiting list for affordable housing for urban aboriginal people managed by three organizations in Metro Vancouver, with many waiting years for a spot to open up.

      Graves said a major barrier aboriginal people face in obtaining housing appears to be prejudice from potential landlords.

      “It is very, very difficult to find housing for aboriginal people, many of whom are tremendous tenants, and tremendous people, and it’s a bias, and it’s very, very difficult to overcome,” she told the Straight by phone.

      According to Stewart, many homeless aboriginal people are dealing with the negative effects of residential schools or the foster-care system. As a former foster child himself, Stewart noted one of his siblings ran away from the system and was homeless for nearly 20 years.

      “He’s no longer homeless and got himself off the street and he doesn’t want to go back, but he didn’t cope well at all,” Stewart recounted.

      He added that people staying at the temporary homeless shelter run by the Vancouver Aboriginal Friendship Centre include the working poor and university students.

      Stewart wants to see more public education around aboriginal history and the kind of government support First Nations people are eligible for.

      “[There are] a lot of myths,” he noted. “People think they get free housing, they get free everything, and it’s not the case.”

      The count conducted in March indicated the city’s homeless population is aging and in poorer health compared to those in previous counts. Among the 1,602 homeless people counted, 59 percent had an addiction, 40 percent had a mental illness, 36 percent had a medical condition, and 30 percent had a physical disability. According to Graves, typical medical conditions include cancer, hepatitis, chronic bronchitis, asthma, and chest diseases.

      The report was presented before Homelessness Action Week, which runs until Saturday (October 13), with events across the region.



      Jenny Fur

      Oct 11, 2012 at 2:06pm

      Another related issue is that many aboriginals are living in seriously overcrowded homes, with several generations and plenty of extended family, or friends that are considered family. It's better than being homeless, but not ideal. This is really common.


      Oct 11, 2012 at 6:24pm

      I love Vancouver but the way that we deal with homeless people here is an embarrassment. Thank you for this article.

      Patricia Rice

      Oct 11, 2012 at 6:24pm

      What about some intergenerational housing with community kitchens designed to support the traditional cultural living styles. The reality of many people being squished into single family units as noted in the comment by Jenny Fur is a disgrace. High density units respecting the traditional extended family lifestyle would be a cost effective option and could also support the emotional and health needs of those with compromised emotional and physical health.

      Ryan Autumn

      Oct 11, 2012 at 8:12pm

      I am so tired about hearing about this!! Natives have reserves and native housing and also B.C housing to live in for cheap! No one else has those options, yet most of the homeless are natives?! No one else gets hundreds and thousands because they were abused as children, then blow all their money and then get offered brand new housing. The government just needs proper management in the housing ministry to solve this. Sean Ramsey needs his ministry re-vamped to help this mess and get on with it.

      R U Kiddingme

      Oct 15, 2012 at 2:01pm

      The root issue is that the Them and Us model is not working. The reserve system is a gulag. Well-intentioned and culturally sensitive. but a gulag nonetheless. To achieve stability and success in Canada is not an automatic, easy thing for anyone. To put aboriginal people behind a legal and psychological barrier of Otherness, and a physical barrier of exile to remote, bleak reserves, is to handicap them with an arbitrary system that discourages integration while encouraging (mandating, even) idleness and cynicism. And for what? A handful of band chiefs and their sycophants.

      Since it is going to take generations for another government to have the guts to revive the gist of the 1969 White Paper, we are left with these Band-Aid notions -- oh let's build more homeless shelters.

      Shelters are great, we need them, but imagine if we took that approach to any other minority group in our society. "Oh, the bullied kids are killing themselves, the answer must be to build larger psych wards."

      And Ryan Autumn, you're not getting it either. Cheap is relative. The housing ministry can't possibly be tasked with "fixing" a systemic imbalance that boils down to a separate, crappier system for some of us based on DNA.


      Oct 15, 2012 at 2:09pm

      The way BC & Vancouver treat Homeless and the Poor is both a Tragedy & Travesty.

      The Government & BC Housing can allow the Wife of the BC Housing CEO to "manage" a few properties for $4 Million a year!

      In any other Country there would outrage and firing of all those involved not here, another $4 Million down the drain.

      Angela Weldon

      Oct 26, 2012 at 4:37am

      Aboriginals - Canada's dirty little secret

      leona johnstone

      Apr 22, 2013 at 1:28pm

      looking at all the rates of suicide,physical and sexual abuse,i would understand the cycles of unending trauma that were put on aboriginal people from the distant past.residential schools were the most traumatic.from poor sanitation to death tolls that were almost reached to ethnocide, i am not condemning no one for the way a person lives, some people can't come back from that cycle of abuse. there are wauys of change and that is from people who care enough to share their gifts of understanding. there is always a chance of change for thwe better but we as individuals must make that change.i've lived that life and was no angel believe me,through help from caring people rich or poor, i am happy to say that i am making the statistic of one less native to one more graduate.give everyone the benefit of the doubt, there are some beautiful people that have no homes but have a great spirit.