Cultural sensitivity: Accommodating racialized & newcomer communities

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness
August 30, 2017

People experiencing homelessness in Canada include a disproportionate number of individuals from racialized and newcomer communities. Racialized persons are defined as individuals who are non-Caucasian. Factors such as discrimination, language barriers, historical trauma and colonization have a cumulative effect -- they are also linked to experiencing homelessness and being unable to break the cycle of homelessness in Canadian society.

Because the realities experienced by individuals who are part of racialized and newcomer communities are different from that of other communities, it is important to recognize the unique challenges they may face. Connecting individuals to resources that are culturally appropriate makes it possible for their needs to be effectively addressed.

Below are some of the marginalized groups in Canadian society, who are especially at risk for experiencing homelessness for a multitude of reasons:

Indigenous Peoples

While Indigenous Peoples make up a small portion of the general population in urban areas in Canada, they account for a large percentage of those experiencing homelessness. In Toronto, for example, only 0.5% of the general population is Indigenous, and yet they make up about 15% of those who are experiencing homelessness. What is more, Indigenous Peoples make up to 90% of those experiencing homelessness in northern Canadian cities like Whitehorse or Yellowknife, while making up roughly only a sixth of both cities' populations. 

A number of different circumstances can account for this overrepresentation of Indigenous Peoples amongst those experiencing homelessness. This includes the historical trauma and oppression faced by Indigenous Peoples, who were subjected tomaltreatment and cultural erosion through the exploitations of colonization, residential schools and the 60s Scoop. The aftermath often includes unstable families and homes, and various issues within Indigenous communities such as substance use, addiction, community violence and health issues.

Addressing these issues is not as simple as connecting individuals and families to social services and general resources. Cultural considerations need to be taken into account in order to properly address the issue of homelessness specific to Indigenous Peoples.

For example, within Indigenous cultures, the conceptualization of “home” and therefore what it means to experience homelessness, is more than simply having or lacking a roof over one’s head. Homelessness also includes variables such as relationships and connections to human kinship, earth, lands, waters and territories, animals, plants, spirits, elements, traditional songs, teachings, ancestors and names.

Furthermore, Indigenous homelessness does not fit neatly into the four Canadian categories of homelessness: unsheltered, emergency sheltered, provisionally sheltered, and at risk of homelessness. A definition that takes these important considerations into account is being worked on, and is set to be released in the fall of 2017.

Racialized Groups and Homelessness

Canada is comprised of a number of racially diverse groups, some of who are at an increased risk for experiencing homelessness:

Refugees and Newcomers to Canada

Many of the challenges faced by refugees and newcomers to Canada parallel those faced by Canadians who are at risk of experiencing homelessness. For example, newcomers frequently struggle with finding good quality, permanent, appropriately located, yet affordable housing.

Refugees to Canada who are not privately sponsored are given help from settlement agencies to find housing arrangements -- but contrary to popular belief, they do not get to jump the waitlists for affordable housing. As a result, settlement agencies often look outside of subsidized housing and to the private housing market, which can be risky due to the chance of finding housing that is too expensive, overcrowded or illegally rented.

In addition to struggling with the need to find suitable housing, many refugees deal with a number of personal problems such as psychological distress, unemployment, a lack of social capital, language barriers, discrimination, lack of access to transportation and lack of credit history.

The barriers that newcomers and refugees to the country face put them at an increased risk for homelessness and core housing need compared to other groups. For example, 10.1% of newcomer youth experience homelessness.

What Can Be Done?

Taking into account the many cultures present in Canada is an important step towards providing effective services. It has been said that homelessness is a culture, and that services delivered by individuals with first-hand experience may contribute to better outcomes. This may mean having more staff with a history of experiencing homelessness, or perhaps hiring more ethnically diverse teams to help administer services in a culturally appropriate way. This will mean taking into account the historical, social, political and economic contributions that have created homelessness for people from various backgrounds.

multicultural hands
Media Folder: 
In Canada, the social services and health sector is often criticized for being predominantly white and middle class, although the populations that most frequently access these services tend to be members of various racialized and marginalized communities.

Marginalized groups, which often include non-English speakers, racialized communities, those who are experiencing homelessness and newcomers to the country, tend to deal with more health problems for a number of reasons, including a lack of information and difficulties accessing health care. As the service models offered are more likely to reflect white, middle class values, the needs of racially and ethnically diverse groups may not be adequately met.

Across Canada, a number of culturally diverse services have emerged in hopes of providing services that will address the needs of Canada’s many groups and communities.

Services in Ontario:

Indigenous Housing and Services:

Across Toronto, a number of housing, health, legal, employment and cultural services are available to serve the Indigenous community. Some of them include:

  • Anishnawbe Health Mental Health Crisis Line: Provides mental health services for crises 24/7.
    416-891-8606, aht.ca
  • Anishnawbe Health Toronto: provides traditional healing, counselling that is culturally appropriate for youth and families involved with the child protection system, teaching and Healing Circles, Spiritual Ceremonies, education regarding diabetes
  • 416-360-0486, aht.ca
  • Native Child and Family Services of Toronto
    416-969-8510, 655 Bloor St W, nativechild.org, info@nativechild.org

For more Indigenous Peoples-specific services located in Toronto, visit: https://www1.toronto.ca/wps/portal/contentonly?vgnextoid=0e1ed4b4920c0410VgnVCM10000071d60f89RCRD

Access Alliance Multicultural Health and Community Services:

This is a registered organization and United Way member agency that serves the community of Toronto, by providing services for immigrants and refugees who are newcomers to the city.

For more information: http://accessalliance.ca/about-us/

Services in British Columbia:

Aboriginal Homeless Outreach Program:

Serving communities in British Columbia and managed by the Aboriginal Housing Management Association (AHMA), this program provides outreach workers for Indigenous Peoples that are19 years and older who have housing and health concerns.

Services are free and outreach workers listen to the health and housing needs of individuals. Connections are made to appropriate services and housing that is available. Services are provided with an Indigenous Peoples specific perspective.

For more information: https://www.bchousing.org/housing-assistance/homelessness-services/aboriginal-homeless-outreach-program

ISS of BC: Immigration and Settlement Services:

This organization is focused on providing services and supports to immigrants, including refugees. Services include settlement, education and employment programs. Support programs are offered in over 45 languages in the Metro Vancouver, Squamish and the Okanagan regions.

For more information: http://issbc.org/welcomecentre/

Indigenous Peoples-Specific Support and Programs in Alberta:

Shining Mountains: 

This is an Indigenous Peoples-owned, staffed and operated charity that aims to provide a variety of programs to Indigenous Peoples who may be facing homelessness, domestic violence, living with HIV/AIDS and addictions. This charity also provides culturally-sensitive training, education and referral programs for organizations.

For more information: http://www.shiningmountainslcs.ca/

Aboriginal Driver's License Initiative:

This program helps Indigenous Peoples with obtaining and maintaining a valid driver’s licence. It recognizes the barriers a lack of transportation can pose to success in employment. The three main areas of the program focus on: bringing awareness to the issue, education and training to help persons who are a part of the Indigenous Peoples community obtain their driver’s licences, and the accessibility of registration services (particularly in remote areas of Alberta).

For more information: http://indigenous.alberta.ca/Projects-and-Partners.cfm

Urban Society for Aboriginal Youth (USAY):

This non-profit organization is focused on assisting Indigenousyouth in the urban setting of Calgary, Alberta. They aim to provide urban Indigenousyouth with services and resources such as career planning, business etiquette, personal finance, and Blackfoot teachings.

For more information: http://www.usay.ca/about

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Comments? Questions? Post them on Community Workspace on Homelessness:

The Community Workspace on Homelessness is an interactive, online platform that enables people to share information about and discuss issues related to homelessness. Different communities are able to share their knowledge, collaborate, and provide resources through this space.

https://workspaceonhomelessness.ca

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The analysis and interpretations contained in the blog posts are those of the individual contributors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness.