During the pandemic, both the Bent Arrow Traditional Healing Society and the Native Counselling Services of Alberta (NCSA) began housing initiatives to help at-risk or homeless Indigenous youth.
“There are a lot of young Indigenous people who are at risk of homelessness, [and] who are experiencing homelessness,” says Melissa Meneen, project manager of the Indigenous Youth Housing First program at NCSA. “So, our role is to support these young people on a good path forward, and the first step is housing.”
“Many of our community members, our young Indigenous people, are impacted by [historic trauma and intergenerational trauma],” adds Meneen, “which impacts their housing.”
Homeward Trust shows that 61 per cent of homeless youth identify as Indigenous, and in 2018, there were 180 homeless youth in Edmonton. Housing initiatives for Indigenous youth are sorely needed.
Bent Arrow’s program is called Eagles Nest and is funded by Homeward Trust. Lovette Ferguson, a senior manager at Bent Arrow, says, “The goal [of Eagles Nest] is to look at supporting the youth in self-sufficiency, so they have a network of support, they have stability in terms of housing, [and stability in] financial and personal [matters].”
Indigenous youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who have barriers to housing stability are eligible for Eagles Nest. Their time in the program usually lasts nine months to a year. After their eligibility is confirmed, youth complete an intake assessment with staff to determine their needs and are then put in touch with a housing outreach worker whose role is “to support the youth in finding affordable, sustainable housing,” says Ferguson.
Eagles Nest also has two youth engagement workers who help youth work on stability and self-sufficiency, both in housing and in their personal lives.
“To keep the process as independent for youth as possible, [we] provide a platform where it is youth driven, so [the youth are] really going to be the ones that are telling us how we work with them [and] what they want to work on,” says Ferguson.
“Personal challenges can interfere with [a youth’s] ability to maintain employment and or education,” explains Ferguson, “so we want to take a look at what [their] goals for [their] personal life [are], what [they] would like to be, what [they] would like to improve… and how can we help support those changes.”
Cultural supports are also available. Youth have the option to partake in culture through ceremony or by connecting to an elder or spiritual advisor. Cultural navigators check in with youth on a daily or weekly basis to support them in their goals.
NCSA’s program, Indigenous Youth Housing First, also operates with the support of Homeward Trust and is under the umbrella of Housing First. Participants that qualify for the program come from the Homeward Trust By Names list, which is a list of people who are emergency sheltered, provisionally accommodated, unsheltered, or in unknown locations. The NCSA then puts these people in touch with housing outreach workers who help secure and set up housing.
Then, the youth work with a navigator who provides follow-up support for up to a year. Navigators help youth achieve both housing and personal goals such as family reunification, connecting with a family doctor, and working through a history of trauma.
“We have sharing circles and meetings with youth peers to talk about how to move forward in a good way,” explains Meneen. “Anything that [the youth] want to work on, we’ll support them moving forward.”
Youth don’t need to be homeless to qualify for the program, they only need to be at risk. “Say, for example, if you’re a young person and there’s discord in your family or your parents are getting divorced or they’ve lost their jobs and they’re at risk of addiction… there’s an opportunity there [for them in our program].” Other at-risk youth could be those staying in youth shelters or couch surfing.
“One of the things that’s important to us is to help our youth remember who they are and their identity,” says Meneen. So, the program invites participants to partake in culture. Cultural support workers are available to set up meetings and home visits with elders, and cultural programming like art installations with the Flying Canoe Festival. “Our approach is to think outside the box in how we can incorporate culture and identity through innovative ways,” explains Meneen.