Homelessness in Hamilton: the struggle of displaced Indigenous men

A priority issue not receiving priority attention that is affecting the Hamilton community is Indigenous homelessness— the ‘urban native’ population of the broader Indigenous community that is routinely overlooked. These people bring rich and diverse cultural components, histories, language, and skills from their home communities, and their familial traditions to make up the unique Indigenous social fabric of our community. Indigenous Hamiltonians are lumped together, viewed as a singular group, and referred to as such in the social discourse. These individuals find themselves facing chronic homelessness in larger numbers than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Studies show that traumas are more widely experienced and are damaging to identity formation and development, that resulting substance use and mental health issues are magnified, that poverty is experienced more deeply, and that the systemic racism inherent in our collective response more firmly entrenched.

The social service system is designed to force a Western ideal of achievement and success that Indigenous people lack the opportunity or desire to fulfill. The collective and cooperative nature of Indigenous governance and leadership does not fit with the hierarchical nature of how the municipality, province, and country has opted to structure its government. Pressure to prize individualism and autonomy that aligns with policy is the contemporary spawn of colonial consciousness. As a result many of these men and women in urban environments are disconnected from culture and tradition, forced to give these things up or to never connect with them in the first place. They are not respected and valued for their distinct identities. They face intergenerational trauma and a cycle of abuse that is passed down through their families and communities due directly to the lasting legacies of Residential schools and the 60s Scoop— the result of government policies which forced Indigenous people from their families, their lands, their language, and their history, and placed them in unfamiliar environments. Forced to try and create a life with a significant piece of their identity missing, these traumas and larger community issues are deliberately perpetuated by a system and environment that is intentionally constructed to be exclusionary to Indigenous people.

We need to re-think the way in which we treat and address Indigenous homelessness from a systems perspective. To achieve quick progress that is not mired in the bureaucracy of government institutions and processes, a response needs to start at the community level. Hamilton, ON is home to an Indigenous population that makes up approximately 3% of its total population, yet represent between 26%-47% of the total homeless population according to the 20 000 Homes Campaign and Social Planning & Research Council of Hamilton surveys completed in 2015. They are predominately men, are approximately 40 years of age on average, and utilize shelter services less frequently than their non-Indigenous counterparts. Men prefer to couch surf, staying with family and friends at various times, and are often difficult to track and assess as they are hidden from public view. Overwhelmingly, Indigenous men hold a distrust for community institutions such as shelters, social service agencies, police, and government services that historically have contributed to the marginalization they have experienced collectively.

When looking at the discrepancy between Indigenous and non-Indigenous emergency shelter use among homeless men (~47% vs. ~61%, respectively), Indigenous men simply do not feel these are safe or welcoming spaces for them to sleep. Anecdotally, there is heightened risk of assault, theft, substance use, illegal activity, and racial discrimination that frequently occurs. One man I met recently told me that as he was being kicked out of the shelter, sent out into the street without a place to sleep for the night over a trivial misunderstanding, the staff discharging him told him at least he still had thirty minutes until the liquor store closed. The tired stereotype of the drunken Indian is still prevalent even among mainstream professionals, let alone the wider community, and contribute to the lack of trust Indigenous people have for the system they are required to operate within. There are also no emergency shelter supports geared towards Indigenous men specifically in Hamilton, whereas Indigenous women are serviced by two shelters, a transitional housing program, and a rent-geared-to-income subsidized housing organization that prioritizes homeless women.

The Truth and Reconciliation Report offered 94 calls to action for all levels of government and all citizens to actively participate in to begin the process of returning proper autonomy to Indigenous people across Canada and North America, in order to allow a process of collective healing to begin.
The nineteenth call to action requires that “…the federal government, in consultation with Aboriginal peoples, [sic] establish measurable goals to identify and close the gaps in health outcomes between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities, and to publish annual progress reports and assess long term trends.” Hamilton already has established Indigenous community organizations, structure, leaders, workers, and community members with the capacity to establish a homelessness-serving sector alongside that of the mainstream, to address its own social determinants and its own health outcomes. The community can manage its own homelessness issue, and will be able to produce stronger outcomes than a broad, singular approach at the municipal level. Indigenous people want to be served by Indigenous people, where they know they will be listened to, respected, and serviced in a way that recognizes their unique needs and challenges as they work to reconnect with their culture and community. The role of the mainstream is to learn from Indigenous people about what they need, not to tell them. They need to acknowledge that they do not have the capacity to fully understand the Indigenous worldview, and likewise that Indigenous people have no special obligation to be coherent to Canadians. Ultimately, that is what it will take to solve Indigenous homelessness.

Tyson has recently joined the Homeward Bound: From Homelessness to Community team in the Housing Liaison Worker role. Tyson is a graduate of Wilfrid Laurier University, holding a bachelor’s degree in History and Psychology, as well as an Aboriginal Concurrent Disorders designation from Mohawk College. He has previously worked in a Supportive Housing and Aboriginal Mental Health capacity, and brings passion and energy to community-minded services and supports targeted towards the Aboriginal population.

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