Brandon housing crisis reflected in data

·4 min read

A Brandon program aimed at helping unsheltered people in the city is calling for more affordable and transitional housing in light of census data released from Statistics Canada Wednesday that show Indigenous people across the country are facing a housing crisis.

Homelessness in Brandon has seen a huge increase in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, said Kris Olson, co-ordinator with Brandon Housing First, a program that helps individuals and families access and sustain permanent rental housing.

Olson said that, anecdotally, Indigenous people make up a high percentage of Brandon’s homeless population. The reasons behind that, he added, are manifold.

“Some do come off reserves,” Olson said. “Other people are transients; others are just having tough luck. There are so many variables and there are just so many people out there right now that the agencies as a whole in Brandon … are just not equipped to handle this many individuals.”

According to 2021 census data released by Statistics Canada, the number of people who identify as Indigenous — 1.8 million in the country — grew at nearly double the rate of the non-Indigenous population, by 9.4 per cent from 2016 to 2021.

And while the number of Indigenous people in insufficient housing decreased slightly, it is still much higher than for non-Indigenous people. In 2021, nearly one in six Indigenous people lived in a home that was in need of major repairs, and more than 17 per cent lived in crowded housing.

Even though Brandon Housing First is operating at above capacity, Olson said they never turn prospective clients away. Even if they can’t immediately provide housing for them, the organization begins a relationship with the person so that when services do become available, they are able to move people into better situations more quickly.

Part of the organization’s approach is providing outreach to unsheltered people on the city streets, instead of waiting for them to come. Olson said there is currently a gap in this kind of outreach in Brandon.

“I do believe an outreach-specific approach is needed for Brandon, where people are out on the street gathering information and guiding people to where they need to go,” Olson said.

While additional funding is important, he recognized that there are some programs already in place to support housing, such as Reaching Home, the federal government’s homelessness strategy from which Brandon Housing First receives financial support.

The 2022 federal budget committed $4.3 billion over seven years to help improve Indigenous housing. As well, Ottawa has promised to develop a housing strategy targeting urban, rural and northern Indigenous people, with a budget of $300 million over five years.

“I think the commitment from the government needs to be larger, because this isn’t something that’s going away,” Olson said. “Unfortunately, the best thing we can do is try to alleviate [homelessness] and try to get people into homes faster.”

Losing Meredith Place, a transitional housing space, was a big blow to the homeless population in Brandon, and to the organizations like Brandon Housing First that are trying to relieve it.

Transitional housing is an intermediate step between emergency crisis shelter and permanent housing. Meredith Place, which was operated by YWCA Brandon, permanently closed in May due to structural and funding concerns.

“Brandon needs transition housing,” Olson said.

The Manitoba Métis Federation is trying to address the problem of homelessness in Westman’s Métis community, through the building of affordable housing, first-time home purchase assistance and a program that helps Métis individuals and families afford upgrades to their homes, said the federation’s minister of housing and property, Will Goodon.

“There’s actually quite a bit happening in the southwest region,” Goodon told the Sun.

This includes eight housing units, made up of duplexes and triplexes, in Brandon, and two duplexes that opened this summer in Binscarth, 140 kilometres northwest of Brandon.

“They’re already full, and … I know there’s people asking if we would build some more out there.”

Some of the housing, like the duplex units in Binscarth, are specifically designated for seniors, and cost around $800 per month in rent, which also covers the cost of hydroelectricity.

“We want to make sure our elders and our seniors are in a place where they don’t have to choose between paying their rent or buying groceries or prescriptions.”

Goodon said the possibility of more affordable housing in Brandon was brought up during the MMF Southwest regional meeting that was held in Brandon Sept. 17.

The federation is also supporting first-time home buyers with a fund that assists with legal and real estate fees. The program helped more than 70 Métis families purchase their first home over the last two years in Westman.

Another program from the MMF allocates funds to help people repair their homes so they can remain in them longer.

Miranda Leybourne, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Brandon Sun