Indigenous People and Homelessness: a Distinct and Growing Reality

Photo by Paul Fleurent

Carole Lévesque is a professor at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) who specialises in urbanization, culture and society. Over the course of two years, she headed a team of six researchers who studied the situation of homeless indigenous people in Montreal and Val-d’Or and wrote a report on their findings. A specialist in the world of indigenous peoples, Ms Lévesque was recently awarded a Grand Prix du Québec for her scientific research. Here, she talks about the findings of her research into homelessness among indigenous Québécois.

Migration to towns

Many hardships, including unemployment and overpopulated housing, cause indigenous people to leave their community to move to towns, Lévesque said. “There is a lot of violence in the communities,” she explained. “Women and children are the first victims. They leave with the idea that the town will be a better world in which to raise their children.” Additionally, anyone who has been to prison is considered a pariah and “banished from their community.”

Many First Nations homeless people were born in towns or come from communities relatively close to densely populated areas. The Inuit, on the other hand, are born in the far north of Canada; when they leave their community, it is often the first time they set foot in a town. As a result, they really are not sure what is waiting for them.

Inuit women can sometimes be seen partying in the street. “They find themselves in groups in Montreal with a certain amount of freedom,” Lévesque said. “During the first few days, they take drugs and drink alcohol, but this is only temporary and does not represent reality,” she explained, going on to identify the fact that when they leave their community, individuals underestimate the risks associated with being on the street.

Trauma as baggage

We’ve heard a lot about “Indian” boarding schools managed by churches: ripped from their families, many children were mistreated, abused and forcefully assimilated in such schools, both in terms of religion and language. Even though the current generation of young homeless indigenous people did not have to suffer the boarding schools, their parents and grandparents have passed their trauma down to the next generations, Lévesque lamented.

There is a lot of family instability as a result, and children are often moved from one family to another, whether through hosting or adoption. Indigenous women have numerous children at an early age, and, when they find themselves on the street, the Direction de la Protection de la Jeunesse [DPJ: Canadian Child Protection Services] takes charge of the situation. The outcome is often that siblings are separated, which causes these women considerable pain. To get housing, some of them agree to sexual favours, but, in such circumstances, the DPJ will refuse to give them their children back.

Different from non-indigenous homeless people

Unlike non-native Québécois homeless people, who are often seen alone or in twos or threes on the street, indigenous homeless people tend to stay in groups. Those who beg share the money collected, and they are supportive and protective of one another. It is not uncommon to see several people or even a dozen from the same family in the group. “They stick together for linguistic reasons and it makes them feel safe,” Lévesque explained.

Indigenous people also end up on the street for different reasons. Non-indigenous people often suffer from mental-health problems, addiction or the consequences of job loss or divorce, for example. Indigenous homeless people do not suffer from mental health problems as often, Lévesque identified. However, they instead face a “higher density” of social and personal problems.

There are almost as many female indigenous homeless people as men, which is not the case among non-native homeless people. Another difference is that the majority of indigenous people continue to get on very well with their families, while non-native people are often in conflict with or completely cut off from their families.

Poorly suited resources

Some institutions provide clothing and offer meals of traditional indigenous food. The programmes designed to help indigenous homeless people to find housing are not well suited to their task, however. “The Chez Soi project, which provides housing for homeless people, does not always work for indigenous people, because as soon as one of them gets a flat, all the others arrive, and the person who got the housing then prefers to return to the street to get some rest,” Lévesque said, by way of example.

Her report recommends “developing more resources adapted to indigenous people,” such as, for example, recovery programs and places where they can work together or unwind.

Likewise, training should be offered to the non-native people involved in supporting the indigenous homeless so that they can understand indigenous peoples’ values and better meet their needs as a result. Awareness-raising programs are essential to reduce racism and discrimination, while better trained therapists could help indigenous people overcome their trauma. However, indigenous communities must take on some of the responsibility through preventive work, the anthropologist insisted.

It remains to be seen whether the government will put these recommendations into practice. Action must be taken so that indigenous children do not also find themselves on the street once they reach adulthood.

A distinct reality

The research project was subsidized by the Ministère de la Santé et des Services Sociaux (Ministry of Health and Social Services) and by the National Research Council Canada (NRC) as part of work carried out by the Research Alliance ODENA, a word that means “town” in the Anicinape language. The Alliance brings together researchers and indigenous peoples who collaborate to increase knowledge that can improve the quality of life for indigenous people living in towns.

A significant sample

The group met with 175 people, 87 of whom were homeless indigenous people, as well as 30 others, whether indigenous or not, who work in services for homeless people. A total of 55 percent of the indigenous sample were men, and 44 percent were women. Of that number, 54 percent were members of a First Nation and 40 percent were Inuit.  

A field specialist

Lévesque has dedicated her career to indigenous peoples’ issues for over 40 years. A researcher at the Centre Urbanisation Culture et Société [CUCS: Urbanisation, Culture and Society Centre) of the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS), she has spent time in more than 45 of the 56 First Nation and Inuit communities in Quebec and has carried out numerous field investigations.

Under-educated

More than half of homeless indigenous people have not finished secondary education, while one in five continue their education at the college or university level. Four out of five Inuit do not have any qualifications—almost all of whom are men. However, among the First Nations, men are slightly more qualified than women. Almost all of them have indigenous cultural knowledge, such as hunting, fishing or harvesting.

Often without work 

More than half say that they have a job: 42 percent have a job in an indigenous body, and 47 percent in a non-native organization.

From one host environment to another

Just one third of homeless indigenous people have only ever lived in the family environment with their biological or adoptive parents. The rest have lived in several family environments. This includes living with biological parents, grandparents, host families or reception centres. That being said, the majority identified that they have quite good relationships with their biological parents.

Large families

The majority of participants were single; however, more than 90 percent have children. Half have three or more children, a quarter had their first child between the ages of 14 and 17 and 38 percent have grandchildren.

A binding language

Three quarters of the group’s mother tongue is an indigenous language, and virtually all of the Inuit participants are included in this statistic. Indigenous peoples speak their mother tongue with one another and French and English with others from outside their community.

More than one thousand in Montreal

The study estimates that there are between 1,000 and 1,500 homeless indigenous people in Montreal. It’s very difficult to determine the number as many of them are hidden homeless people, such as those who pile into the same flat to spend the night. Their number also varies depending on the seasons, as 40 percent return to their community periodically to take part in events and ceremonies or to see their families. It is easier for members of the First Nations to return to their families as their communities are closer.

Violence on a daily basis

Around three quarters of participants in the study say that they have been subject to discrimination by citizens, police officers and even non-indigenous homeless people. A comparable proportion have been victims of violence in towns, whether verbal or physical. This violence is often inflicted by friends, ex-partners, other homeless people or police officers. Among the Inuit, the victims of violence are mainly women, but the opposite is true among the First Nations. However, most indigenous people feel safe if they have friends and family with them.

Regulars at shelters

When they are homeless, indigenous people either sleep on the street or in a shelter. Most of the time, people eat in the shelters or at day centers, such as at the Centre d’amitié Autochtone in Montreal, on Boulevard Saint-Laurent.

Adopting Montreal 

Almost all of the indigenous homeless who took part in the study identify Montreal as their main place of residence, and more than half have lived in the city for over five years. They like the fact that their family and friends are there, and they like the city because of its atmosphere, services and cultural activities. They bemoan the presence of drugs and alcohol, violence, people’s arrogance and indifference, discrimination, the language barrier and the difficulty in finding work and housing.

Translated from French by Caitlin Job

Courtesy of L’Itinéraire / INSP.ngo

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