Assembly of First Nations creates plan to help homeless Indigenous population in cities

The Assembly of First Nations is creating a national plan aimed at helping homeless First Nations people living off reserve.

The AFN, which represents roughly 900,000 living in reserves and in cities across Canada, voted to create the strategy in December at a special chiefs meeting in Ottawa.

The plan was spearheaded by the Ahousaht First Nation, from the west coast of Vancouver Island, and would give the Assembly of First Nations a mandate to work on the issue of homelessness among those living off reserve.

The strategy will involve gathering and analyzing data, determining the number of homeless Indigenous people living in urban centres, and identifying service gaps.

Last fall, some homeless Indigenous people who live in Vancouver's Oppenheimer park criticized the AFN saying it had failed to take action on the issue.

The national action plan represents the AFN's first attempt to tackle the issue of homelessness among urban Indigenous people.

The idea originated after Ahousaht Chief Councillor Greg Louie last fall asked AFN National Chief Perry Bellegarde to describe AFN's mandate on First Nation homelessness across the country. Bellegarde replied the AFN had no mandate.

"I was shocked, so we got to work on creating one," Louie said.

Homeless counts needed.

The new strategy, called the Action Plan For First Nations Homeless On and Off Reserve, doesn't provide immediate assistance for homeless Indigenous people living in camps like Oppenheimer. But Louie said assessing numbers, needs and services now will lead to better assistance later.

According to the Homeless Hub, one in 15 Indigenous people in Canada experience homelessness. This is compared to one in 128 for the general population. 

In Vancouver, the city's 2019 homeless count reported that Indigenous people comprised two per cent of the city's population, but accounted for 39 per cent of the homeless population.

Louie couldn't said he doesn't have figures on the number of Ahousaht people who are homeless, but said there are nation members experiencing homelessness in Victoria.

Shift in thinking

The plan calls for an advocacy strategy, something the Ahousaht have already been doing on a smaller scale. They've raised the issue at Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council meetings, which represents 14 First Nations on the West Coast, and held a homeless forum in Victoria. They've also advocated with provincial government MLA's such as Selina Robinson and Judy Darcy.

The AFN has largely centres on First Nations' issues on reserve. But the homeless plan is part of an AFN shift toward a greater involvement in urban issues, Louie said.

"The elected chiefs and hereditary chiefs are doing more advocacy to say to federal, provincial, to the First Nations governments, 'We have a lot of our own First Nations people who are living in cities and we need to take care of them,'" Louie said.

Ben Nelms/CBC

'I want them to advocate to get people inside'

Chris Livingstone, who works for the Metro Vancouver Aboriginal Executive Council and meets with camp inhabitants, welcomed the AFN's involvement. But he's concerned with how the plan will roll out. 

Livingstone also noted the city of Vancouver and the Luma Native Housing Society already gather data on Indigenous homelessness. "So I'm concerned about repeating work that's already gone there," he said.

Rather, Livingstone said the goal is to find housing for Indigenous people who are homeless, particularly those in Oppenheimer Park. 

"We want to get them inside, but there seems to be nowhere for them to go."