Painting the picture of youth Indigenous homelessness in Durham Region

By Meagan Secord

In 1986 at the age of 24, Cassie-Jean Dillon, an Indigenous women, was in and out of various women’s shelters in Durham Region, with her four-year-old daughter in tow.

Dillon, now a 57-year-old undergraduate student and PhD candidate at Trent University studying sociology and Indigenous studies, had been trying to escape an abusive spouse situation. She vividly remembers what it was like to be homeless as an Indigenous person and having to live in a shelter.

Her strongest memory from this time is of another Indigenous woman who brought her five children to The Denise House where Dillon was staying.

“They pushed two beds together, so there were five of them in the bed, and then it got quiet,” she explains. “She held it together and got them all settled down, then started to cry because you don’t want to cry in front of the kids.”

Dillon, who is currently living in Durham, says she feltsays she felt shame as a young homeless mother, and that her experience on the streets was eye-opening. “It was a shorter time that I was homeless, but much more unknown —much more worrisome and stressful.” she explains. “I didn’t want to go to [local soup kitchen] St. Vincent’s because I had my daughter and it wasn’t a positive crowd, so finding ways to keep my daughter fed and in good clothes was hard. I didn’t want anyone at her school or anyone in general to know.”

Like Dillon, homelessness is a reality for many Indigenous youth living in Durham Region.

In 2018, the region conducted a Point in Time count (PiT), a one-day census of people experiencing sheltered or unsheltered homelessness in the area. Although Indigenous people only make up 2 per cent of Durham’s total population (just over 12,500 people as of 2016, according to Statistics Canada), 21 per cent of those in the PiT count identified as Indigenous.

Dillon is acutely aware of this trend whenever she walks around Oshawa.

“Just go to any tent city, and you just have to look at how many Indigenous people are there to know that there is an underlying social issue here, and there is something wrong with the structure,” she says.

The 2018 national PiT Count found that nearly one-third of respondents identified as Indigenous, which suggests Indigenous people aren’t just overrepresented in homeless populations in Durham — and that this problem is Canada-wide.

Amber Spencer, an Indigenous woman and Durham native living in Toronto, has experienced homelessness in the GTA twice due to different circumstances. Spencer, 26, believes being homeless in Durham Region as a youth would’ve been a lot harder than it was in Toronto.

“It’s hard to get around there, especially with transportation and to use those resources especially with a have bad days,” she says.

One of the servicesSpencer used in the GTA was Anishnawbe Health Toronto, a community health centre. The centre’s housing program helps Indigenous people on disability by covering a percentage of their housing costs, she says.

“Anishnawbe helped me, so I can actually afford rent,” she explains. “The place I am at right now is currently $1,350 [per month] and Anishnawbe makes it so that I only pay $497 [per month] of my disability [cheque] because my disability check is only $1,260 each month. So, without those services, I’d be in negatives each month.”

Beyond Toronto, Spencer says she sees a lot of Indigenous homelessness whenever she visits Durham — and that something has to change.

“If it’s not addressed, there’s going to continue to be this massive amount of kids who are lost in the system, and not able to get ahead,” she explains. “Most of these kids need time to heal, and they just don’t have the resources for it.”

According to the nonprofit research institute Canadian Observatory on Homelessness’ “Definition of Indigenous Homelessness in Canada report, there are 12 reasons why Indigenous communities are more susceptible to homelessness.

They include a disconnection from or loss of their culture, historic displacement, escaping or evading harm and having nowhere else to go.

It’s clear that Indigenous homelessness is an issue in Durham, so are local services catching up with demand?

For her part, Dillon says there weren’t any services available for her in Durham when she was a young homeless mom, and claims there aren’t any services specifically dedicated to solving Indigenous youth homelessness today.

“They are non-existent— I don’t even know where they are. I couldn’t find them 30 or 40 years ago, and I don’t know where they are now,” she says. “There’s no real home for Indigenous people. I don’t know if we need a friendship centre, but we need a physical space.”

Julie Chartier, a youth outreach worker at the Boys and Girls Club of Durham, seconds Dillon’s observations. Chartier says local services for homeless youth are lacking in general, and there are none specifically for Indigenous youth.

She adds that Indigenous youth have a higher chance of becoming homeless due to intergenerational trauma in their communities.

“Just with everything that has happened in history, there’s a lot of trauma from everything, which would lead to bigger systemic issues within the population, which then results in probably a higher percentage of homelessness and incarceration,” she explains.

The Boys and Girls Club of Durham offers programming, such as drum circles, martial arts classes and cooking lessons to create a sense of community for Indigenous youth in Durham, and to help connect them with their cultures. Carea Community Health Centre, a charity that provides community programs and services, has a facility in Oshawa. Although it doesn’t deal with homelessness directly, Carea does offer Indigenous programs and says it strives “to be accessible to those in the community who face access barriers” like homelessness.

Carea also works with the Enaahtig Healing Lodge and Learning Centre in Orillia, Ont. to help Indigenous youth struggling with addiction issues.It provides opportunities for holistic healing and learning based on Indigenous cultural principles, according to its website. Angela Duckworth, a mental health and addictions worker for Indigenous youth and children at the lodge, says reconnecting young Indigenous people to their cultures helps alleviate some of the problems they face.

“Lots of times, what is a root cause of the harms and traumas that people have suffered is because of that lack of identity — not knowing who you are or where you come from,” she explains. Bringing a sacred bundle to family-therapy sessions and hosting crafting sessions to teach youth how to make drums or dreamcatchers are just some of the methods Duckworth uses to help Indigenous youth create a sense of identity.

“Once we start to connect to what is culturally relevant to us...we become more open, we become at ease, we become connected — and that’s when conversation begins. That’s when people start to share their story,” she says.

Despite these services, 57-year-old student Dillonsays more should be done. She is a staunch advocate for a Housing First model in Durham, and believes it will help address the Indigenous homelessness issue.

The model is a “person-centred approach that provides immediate access to permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness, without requiring psychiatric treatment or sobriety as determinants of ‘housing readiness,’” according to Canadian Mental Health Association Durham.

“I believe housing is the key to solving addiction, to solving mental health, to solving a lot,” Dillon explains. “Safe housing— if you have somewhere safe you can go, it’s gonna help all those other issues that come along with it.”

She adds that Durham should also start exploring alternative housing solutions to address the region’s homelessness crisis: “We need to dive into action and sustainable change. The Genosha Hotel sat empty before now for how many years? How hard would it be to house 200 people?”

Dillon hopes to help create better solutions for Indigenous homelessness after she completes her schooling, and wants Durham Region to be her starting point.

She says she never imagined her life to turn out in such a positive way, and credits her daughter for giving her the strength she needed to overcome barriers.

“I’m very fortunate to keep moving forward, and I see people struggling every day,” Dillon says. “Where I work, there’s a regular and there’s also an Anishnawbe girl who I always give a $20 to every time I see her.”

One simple solution Dillon thinks everyone should embrace is to give money to homeless people — especially homeless Indigenous youth — without judgement. “[I give] even if I have to go to a bank machine or go into overdraft — because I know if she’s sitting on that corner, she’s got a lot more problems than I do,” she explains. “Society as a whole needs to change.”