Is Housing First effective for Indigenous women and children fleeing violence?

Canadian Observatory on Homelessness/Homeless Hub: York University
July 29, 2016
Categories: Ask the Hub

This question came from Margaret A. via our latest website survey.

I’m glad that this question has been asked because it touches on an incredibly important issue. Indigenous peoples are over-represented in the homeless population in general, and Indigenous women are homeless in much greater numbers than non-Indigenous women. A history of colonization and marginalization has resulted in what Browne and Fiske (2001) called “a multiple jeopardy” (p. 27) for Indigenous women, “who face individual and institutional discrimination, and disadvantages on the basis of race, gender and class” (Patrick, 2014, p. 39). Patriarchy (male dominance at a structural level), racism, trauma, oppression, racist legislation (like The Indian Act), and ineffective child welfare policies are all contributing factors to poverty, abuse and homelessness for many Indigenous women.

VAW shelters & transition houses in Canada

Before looking at Housing First for this population, it's important to consider the state of the emergency response system. Most shelters and transitional houses are consistently full, often operating well over capacity. This is also true of shelters that focus on housing women fleeing violence, often called VAW (violence against women) or intimate partner violence (IPV) shelters. According to a 2014 Statistics Canada report, 66% of female shelter residents reported emotional abuse and 50% cited physical abuse as reasons for seeking shelter. Earlier this year, the third annual Shelter Voices survey found that in one day alone:

  • 416 women and children reached out for shelter at 234 shelters and transition houses that focus on VAW
  • 111 became new residents
  • 305 turned away due to lack of capacity (that’s 73% of those seeking shelter)

These numbers only give us a snapshot and are certainly underestimates. Because safety is a paramount concern, women are most likely to be “hidden homeless” – taking their children to stay with friends or family. While most women and children turned away find space at other non-VAW specific shelters and transition houses, these numbers speak to the need for an adequate crisis response, but also a greater focus on prevention and accommodation and supports. Affordable housing is key to this, and is unfortunately in low supply countrywide. So if a woman and her children do make it into some emergency housing, where can they go afterwards?

In the same survey, 96% of shelters reported a waiting period for social housing of at least one month, 68% of three months, and 36% over six months. Waiting periods can feel extremely long when seeking stability for children and refuge from an abusive partner. And that’s just for those who can even get on waiting lists. Nearly 80% of shelters in remote locations, and almost 70% on reserves, reported an absence of social housing programs in their areas (full graphic posted right). For Indigenous women in northern Canada, where the private market is tiny and cost of living is high, there are very few places for them to go.

Reported lack of social housing programs
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Statistics on violence against Indigenous women
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Housing First and Indigenous women

The effectiveness of Housing First, an approach to homelessness that attempts to reduce the barriers to permanent housing, for Indigenous women and children fleeing violence hasn’t been fully explored. As Indigenous women are at a much higher risk of violence than other women (pictured right), it's crucial that we investigate what housing options work and don't work for them. While we don’t have a lot of information right now, Housing First model shows promise exactly because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all model. Much of its success relies on adaptation, both for individuals and specific populations.

There’s some evidence that shows Housing First can be effective for Indigenous people generally, if adapted to their unique needs. As the writers of Housing First in Canada stated:

Housing First programs work best when people are in the most appropriate type of housing for their situation. When things do not work out, people might be tempted to conclude the program does not work, when in fact it might have been a bad match. Housing First in Calgary has been adapted to meet the needs of youth, women fleeing domestic violence and Aboriginal people, to best meet people’s unique needs and support housing stabilization. (p.14)

Emerging examples

Two case studies in the Housing First in Canada book had a significant focus on Indigenous populations: Lethbridge and Edmonton. The Lethbridge program included an Indigenous-specific Housing First team to respond to the needs of Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, and prioritized connecting with nearby reserves to help people transition to city life. According to data processed in 2009 (which was unfortunately, not Indigenous-specific), over 864 households were permanently housed and 90% were still housed throughout 2012 and 2013.

In the Edmonton program (Nikihk, with Bent Arrow Healing Society and Homeward Trust), the Housing First team included workers who specialize in trauma and traditional practices and spirituality. Homeward Trust also emphasized the importance of having Indigenous people as part of governing boards, and partnering with Indigenous-led organizations for programs to be successful. As the report discovered, 2325 people (786 of whom were Indigenous) were housed between 2009 and 2012, and 86% retained their housing.

The Winnipeg At Home/Chez Soi project combined assertive community treatment and intensive case management teams, one of which specialized in working with Indigenous people. As 71% of the participants were Indigenous, including local Indigenous organizations and incorporating an Indigenous worldview were extremely important. Overall, the project saw much more positive results than other homelessness interventions, reporting that:

With knowledge of the legacy of colonialism and respect for Indigenous cultural practices, all service teams integrated an Aboriginal holistic approach in delivering Housing First to participants and elders, and traditional teachers were integrated as part of the services and programming offered to participants. At the same time, excellent research follow-up rates were achieved (81 per cent) and outcomes clearly favour the Housing First approach in Winnipeg. In the last six months of the study, 45 per cent of HF participants were housed all of the time, 28 per cent some of the time, and 27 per cent none of the time; whereas 29 per cent of TAU [treatment as usual] participants were housed all of the time, 18 per cent some of the time, and 52 per cent none of the time. This finding is particularly noteworthy given the extremely low vacancy rate for rental housing in Winnipeg.

While these case studies are promising, they don’t tell us specific outcomes of Indigenous participants. A study on the Homeward Trust program by Blue Quills College identified several areas for improvement, including — more trauma and relational supports, life skills training, improving agency Indigenous identity, etc.— but didn’t touch on Indigenous women and children fleeing violence.

Things to consider                                                                                                            

For Housing First to work for this population, inclusion criteria need to be reflective of the unique experiences of homelessness for Indigenous women and girls. The Housing First model has been criticized in terms of how it can be applied to women in need, as it tends to prioritize people who are single, chronically homeless and who have significant issues with mental health and/or substance use. A 2013 brief from Homes for Women highlighted this concern:

Chronic homelessness, for the purposes of inclusion in Housing First programs, has been variously defined. Couch surfing, doubling up with other families in conditions of extreme overcrowding, cycling in and out of abusive relationships, trading sex for temporary accommodation, and other survival strategies that homeless women deploy have generally been categorized as indicative of “relative homelessness.” When the price women and girls pay for shelter is violence and abuse, their homelessness is qualitatively different from a person “provisionally accommodated” in the home of a friend and every bit as profound and as “absolute” as that of men on the street or in shelters. Moreover, many women experience episodic homelessness, as they move in and out of abusive relationships, and in and out of shelters (both homelessness and violence against women [VAW] shelters), in search of safety. The episodic nature of their homelessness is obscured when only time on the street or stays in homelessness shelters are considered.

In his critical examination of Housing First in Canada and Winnipeg, Matthew Stock has similar concerns, and reiterates that women are most likely to be experiencing hidden homelessness and can be harder to reach. He also highlights important cultural differences that may complicate efforts to recruit Indigenous people experiencing homelessness in Housing First programs:

Grandmother Moon prayer
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The homeless Aboriginal population also tends to be highly mobile, which runs counter to HF’s emphasis on establishing a home base (Peters and Robillard 2009: 653). Culture may also be a barrier that prevents Aboriginal participants from effectively utilizing HF services. A Winnipeg study (Deane et al. 2004: 240) found that, because of the importance placed on reciprocity within the Aboriginal community, Aboriginal people tended to rely on their own social networks for support, as opposed to mainstream organizations, which were seen as practicing charity. Furthermore, the history of colonialism and racism may cause Aboriginal participants to feel less comfortable working with non-Aboriginal organizations (p.15).

Another important consideration highlighted by the Homes for Women brief is that “visible” homelessness may put children at risk of apprehension by child welfare agencies, so mothers may avoid services that would connect them to Housing First programs in the first place.

If Indigenous women fleeing violence can (and want to) make it into programs, a wide array of supports need to be available. Housing First models emphasize the importance of offering various supports in addition to housing casework, like:

  • Services and programs for children
  • Extra safety measures
  • Income support
  • Trauma-informed support
  • Transitional options. As Mosher and Homes for Women point out:
    • Transitional housing (or congregate housing with women and children only) is an important option for women who have experienced the trauma of violence, mental health, sex work, addictions, where trust needs to be established. It has also been an effective option for youth and Aboriginal people, where trauma and violations of trust complicate their experience of homelessness and access to housing. (p. 9)
    • Culturally relevant services for Indigenous women and children (access to traditional education, Elders, etc. if they want it)

In rural and remote areas, Housing First programs need to be more creative in finding spaces for Indigenous women and children to live. When possible, and if the woman wants to, it is best to help participants stay in their community if it is safe to do so. For others, relocating further away will be a difficult and necessary transition requiring other kinds of support.

Are there other examples happening in your community? Share them on the Community Workspace on Homelessness.

To learn a bit more about Indigenous women, violence and homelessness, I recommend reading:

This post is part of our Friday "Ask the Hub" blog series. Have a homeless-related question you want answered? E-mail us at thehub@edu.yorku.ca and we will provide a research-based answer.

Emma Woolley is a 2016 graduate of York University's Bachelor of Social Work program with a background in publishing, freelance writing and digital communications. Her interest in affordable housing, homelessness, 2LGBTQ rights, and social justice led her to work with The Homeless Hub. Emma is now pursuing her Master of Social Work at The University of Toronto, where she is focusing on anti-oppressive, strengths-based, recovery-oriented, and critical approaches to mental health care.

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