Aboriginal homelessness an 'epidemic', York researcher says

Aboriginal people make up more than half the homeless population in Thunder Bay, Ont., a research paper says.

The recent study shows First Nations people make up a disproportionate amount of Canada's homeless. In some cities, more than 90 per cent of those living on the streets are aboriginal.

When York University researcher Caryl Patrick examined previous studies from across the country, she found a disturbing trend:

"Aboriginal homelessness in Canada is a crisis, and should be considered an epidemic."

That epidemic reaches from Halifax, where First Nations people make up a tenth of the homeless population, to Yellowknife, where they account for 95 per cent.

"Just to put this into context, aboriginal people represent just over four per cent of the Canadian population, so these are huge numbers," Patrick said.

The results are “really shocking and … sad,” said Beth Ponka, the head of Thunder Bay's Urban Aboriginal Advisory Committee.

The study shows 55 per cent of those living on the streets of Thunder Bay are aboriginal.

“If you walk, or if you drive, through the downtown core in Fort William, you see numerous aboriginal people on the streets,” she said.

"An overwhelming number of people that go to Shelter House [in Thunder Bay] are aboriginal. Actually, it's probably higher than 55 per cent. So I would think that this does reflect what is happening, and in fact may be understated."

Patrick noted that, in major urban zones, aboriginals can range from 11 per cent of the total homeless population to up to 97 per cent.

The reasons are complex, she said, and include "historical and cultural trauma" like residential schools.

Patrick and Ponka agree on one way to address the problem: build more affordable housing.

Ponka said many aboriginal people who come to Thunder Bay to access services such as education and health care, as well as to look for work, experience "culture shock" when they arrive.

"They don't know how to access the supports that exist, such as social assistance and finding housing," she said.

Thompson, Man. has the highest proportion of aboriginal people in the homeless population.