Homelessness is a trauma response to colonization, why does that matter?

July 01, 2022

By Christine Chateau, Graduate Research Assistant– University of Calgary    

Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness are overrepresented in Canada as compared to the non-Indigenous population (Pope, 2020). Mitchel (2019) identifies homelessness among Indigenous peoples as a post-traumatic stress response to “colonial traumagenic forces” (p. 80). Colonial traumagenic forces are defined by centuries of harm and ongoing practices legitimatized by policies, laws, and political interference, such as child welfare policies, extractive policies that violate land rights and racism and discrimination within the fabric of Canada’s institutions (Mitchel, 2019). For the amelioration of Indigenous peoples’ health and well-being, recognizing the impacts that colonization is having on Indigenous peoples lives and experiences is imperative to make available the appropriate health and social services (Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada [TRC], 2015) which includes housing as a basic human right (Ramage et al., 2021).   

The general population in Canada is aging and those that are 65 and over have “increased[ed] from 17.2% in 2018 to between 21.4%” and is expected to grow to “29.5% in 2068" (Statistics Canada, n.d.). The most critical time frame of growth will occur “between 2018 and 2030” (Statistics Canada, n.d.). Point in time statistics are difficult to quantify for seniors in general as they tend to stay with family and friends and are not present during point in time counts (Davis et al., 2019). However, we do know that Indigenous peoples are significantly overrepresented in the homeless population and that homelessness and life experiences over the life cycle for Indigenous peoples lead to lower life expectancies (Hulko et al., 2020). Point in time statistics for Calgary in 2016 show that 24% of participants who were interviewed identified as Indigenous (Campbell et al., 2016) compared to the 2018 point in time statistics for Calgary that saw 41% of homeless people identify as Indigenous (Calgary Homeless Foundation, 2018, p. 15). For Canadian Indigenous peoples aging can be impeded by the negative health outcomes and lower life expectancies that go hand in hand with oppression and colonization (Hulko et al., 2020).

Older homeless individuals in general have unique needs compared to their younger counterparts (Semere et al., 2022). An Australian study examined the care needs of older people facing homelessness by conducting interviews and focus groups with 29 service providers in the homeless and aging care sectors (Rowlands et al., 2020). Rowlands et al. (2020) identified that “…cumulative losses and violence over the life cycle feature prominently in the lives of those experiencing homelessness” (p. 1752). In a Calgary study of 300 participants, 142 of whom were identified as older, the older homeless sample reported significant health care needs and greater barriers to accessing healthcare compared to the younger homeless population interviewed (Milaney et al., 2020). The researchers concluded that long term homelessness and age had compounding effects on the participants that put them at an increased risk for premature death (Milaney et al., 2020).

Indigenous older adults specifically have unique needs compared to their younger counterparts (Beatty & Weber-Beeds, 2013). Colonization has led to cumulative losses over the life cycle for Indigenous peoples (Mitchell, 2019). For my own family, this disruption has meant the loss of connection to our Métis peoples and culture and ways of being in the world, but for many Indigenous homeless, colonization continues to manifest in ways that are retraumatizing while accessing shelters and services (Pope et al., 2021). This has resulted in significant unmet health care needs of older Indigenous peoples experiencing homelessness (Milaney et al., 2020). Colonial trauma, past and present, is a contributing factor on Indigenous people’s poor health outcomes and pathways towards healing Indigenous mental health necessitates political and systemic solutions (Mitchell, 2016). Colonial aggression is insidious and embedded in the fabric of Canadian institutions, yet largely invisible to most non-Indigenous Canadians (Mitchell, 2016). The undoing of colonial aggressions on Indigenous peoples requires a decolonizing approach, that first seeks to render the oppression visible by understanding the role that colonization has played in traumatizing Indigenous communities historically (Linklater, 2014), and how it persists today (Mitchell, 2016). It also demands acknowledgement of the resilience of Indigenous peoples grounded and rooted in the culture and the strength of the people (Linklater, 2014). While we may not be able to accurately estimate the number of older Indigenous homeless peoples; a substantial body of research evidence indicates that older Indigenous homeless peoples have specific needs and thus warrant heightened consideration in research, practice, and policy (Hulko et al., 2020).

A decolonizing approach to support the unmet needs of older Indigenous peoples with experiences of homelessness and trauma must be Indigenous led to be culturally appropriate, trauma informed, and be informed by the lives of older Indigenous homeless people (Firestone et al., 2019). While not specific to older adults, the NiiwinWendaanimak program in Toronto, Ontario is an Indigenous-led program providing an example of a decolonized approach to service provision for Indigenous youth and adults experiencing homelessness. It provides “Indigenous culturally specific healing and psychosocial support which integrates recognition of the chronic trauma caused by genocide and colonization” (Firestone et al., 2019, p. 406). The program is led by “…service providers, Elders, Indigenous service users, and other community leaders concerned with enhancing services in the West End and with a mandate to provide guidance, oversight, and advice for the program” (Firestone, 2019, p. 406).

In the NiiwinWendaanimak program community members gave accounts of feeling safe and at home in the centre, as one key informant noted: “I think the reason people like and come to the program is because it actually is specifically an Indigenous program run by leadership from Indigenous populations with peers who are part of the participants themselves” (Firestone et al., 2019, p. 408). A harm reduction approach is taken to allow community members to show up as they are and still receive the care and resources they need (Firestone et al., 2019). Harm reduction and making Indigenous culture accessible was noted as a strength of the program, “participants explained that the harm reduction approach protects the dignity and honour of community members. It is through this approach that the community can come together as a whole to strengthen the circle, not leaving anyone behind” (Firestone et al., 2019, p. 409). Community members spoke about cultural safety being related to knowledge and space. They felt safe in a space that represented their ties to culture through having Indigenous staff, artwork, showcasing culture through community events and making time for Indigenous only ceremonies (Firestone et al., 2019). Cultural safety was also represented through knowledge of staff members, as defined by one key informant:

I mean having that shared understanding and knowledge around the Indigenous population, the damages of residential schools and the impact of genocide. I think that it's damaging to have to continuously tell your story over and over and over again. And entering a space where you don’t have to do that and you can just participate is as safe as a space can get. (Firestone et al., 2019, p. 409)

In Alignment with the TRC (2015) Calls to Action (2015), for the Canadian health care system “to recognize the value of Aboriginal healing practices and use them in the treatment of Aboriginal patients” (p. 3), healing and wellness take precedence at the Niiwin Wendaanimak program. With the awareness that community members have experienced trauma over the life cycle, a participant of the program expressed “… the convergence of a culturally safe Indigenous-led space with a non-interference Indigenous harm reduction approach facilitated healing” (Firestone et al., 2019, p. 410). The Niiwin Wendaanimak program provides key examples of what an Indigenous led program that is culturally appropriate and safe while being trauma informed can look like. Our older Indigenous homeless population deserve a person-centred decolonized approach to care (Canadian Association of Social Workers, 2021) that prioritizes their voices and experiences (Pope et al, 2021; Rowlands et al., 2020). As a Métis women whose family has been directly and historically impacted by the harms of colonization, it is my undertaking to advocate for justice for Indigenous peoples and in particular highlight the voices of older Indigenous peoples with experiences of homelessness and trauma to better inform the design of services and programs so they can receive the care and resources they need.



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