Indigenous homelessness is more complex than the colonialist definition of homelessness

Opinions

Hostile architecture in this city further complicates the issue

pandora
Photo by Michael John Lo.

I went for a walk later one evening in December, after the encampment structures were torn down and removed from Centennial Square. When I took a look around I was met with a discouraging sign displaying the bylaws, public safety measures, COVID-19 procedures, and areas prohibited from camping, as well as a bylaw against attaching anything to trees or surrounding structures. 

Fences had been placed around the surrounding trees in the square to further limit occupants from inhabiting the space. They extended roughly two feet past the tree trunks. That’s a two-foot barrier blocking public property unnecessarily. 

I walked throughout Centennial Square because I was curious as to where one would be able to take shelter without being in violation of these orders. I was able to find just one spot near the bus stop that conformed to the measures enacted in Centennial Square. I was discouraged to see more and more reminders of hostile architecture in this city. Hostile architecture is typically city structures that are designed to deter people from loitering or occupying public spaces and oppresses an already marginalized population. 

When I was walking, I became upset seeing benches empty in the rain, but an individual curled up next to one, all because the bench was constructed in a way that prevented anyone from curling up on it. 

Throughout the pandemic, many structures have been erected throughout the City of Victoria. Tents have been erected all over downtown and the surrounding areas, due to the already persistent lack of affordable housing, as well as COVID-19 decreasing the already limited shelter spaces due to health and safety measures. 

Rather than allowing more injustices against their community to continue, people experiencing homelessness erected structures all along Pandora avenue and surrounding city blocks in April 2020. This got the attention of the media and sparked the conversations it warranted. Word spread fast; tent cities were disassembled due to public safety measures in conjunction with COVID-19 social distancing measures. Fences were constructed. 

This spawned the Centennial Square tent city. This community was erected in the square in November 2020 for approximately one to two weeks and took about the same time to disassemble. 

Along with the disassembling of shelters, hostile architecture is springing up in an effort to minimize occupants in public and retail spaces. Some examples of this type of architecture are: rock gardens, benches with bars through the middle, and seating without back rests. 

Lack of affordable housing creates vulnerability to those who may not have the financial stability others experience. It’s common for lower-income people to live pay cheque to pay cheque — this means that just one unexpected expense could jeopardize stability in their life. Indigenous homelessness can occur due to this very issue.

Indigenous homelessness is a human condition that describes First Nations, Métis, and Inuit individuals, families, or communities lacking stable, permanent, appropriate housing, or the immediate prospect, means, or ability to acquire such housing. 

Unlike the common colonialist definition of homelessness, Indigenous homelessness is not defined as lacking a structure of habitation; rather, it is more fully described and understood through a composite lens of Indigenous worldviews. These include individuals, families, and communities isolated from their relationships to land, water,  family, kin,  animals, cultures, languages, and identities. 

Importantly, Indigenous people experiencing these kinds of homelessness cannot culturally, spiritually, emotionally, or physically reconnect with their Indigeneity or lost relationships. I have seen the impacts of this issue directly through my work as an Indigenous Cultural Liaison. I was working directly with a high-risk population in a collaborative program with the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness called “Priority One.” Seeing a person struggle to connect with any aspect of their life due to their needs not being met is absolutely heartbreaking. 

With the lack of affordable housing, I found the Indigenous population especially struggled. With this program, Indigenous homelessness was a problem intended to be solved. 

They found the Indigenous individuals accessing this program saw an improvement from their life on the street. Having stability and basic needs fulfilled, we were able to work with this group to create community amongst them and our team. Included in the program were hot meals prepared by an Elder, cultural activities, crafting, and cultural camps with sweat lodges. 

Unfortunately, some chose to leave the program because they were still struggling with ongoing mental health and addiction, connecting to their culture, or lacked participation in the program which led to their release. 

I worked with an individual that began struggling the second their needs weren’t being met. Thankfully we were able to connect them to other resources, and that also taught me something. When society isn’t addressing the underlying issues someone is experiencing alongside homelessness, we aren’t truly giving them a chance to tell us their truths. Sometimes the people who want to help — these people vary from local homeless organizations, privileged individuals, as well as people who are well-intentioned but lack the ability to help due to this topic not being discussed as seriously as general homelessness is  — are quick to get involved, but forget to step back and see the bigger picture. 

With the tension of building and disassembling of tents and other structures, well-intentioned people were trying to find someone to hold accountable for the frustration everyone was feeling. However, we should have taken a moment to look at why a large group of people is frustrated for not having their needs met. This also includes a connection to their cultural identity. By listening to what is really going on we could possibly avoid frustration , and see beyond just what is on the surface.

Indigenous people need a connection with kin, land, water, and cultural practices. To expect growth without a nurturing environment is an unfair ask. It is possible, however, that Indigenous people face more barriers than others. 

This is why community events are important for Indigenous people; they allow accessibility to culture. Indigenous people are taught to take care of the whole self, but because of the  limitations with housing and COVID-19, they are losing even more connection with their cultures and identity. 

By strengthening our awareness of this issue we can begin to understand the importance of advocating for more affordable housing and cultural connectivity, which may in turn lead to a decrease in Indigenous homelessness.