Without support in place, says Carola Cunningham, CEO of NiGiNan Housing Ventures, Indigneous youth aging out of foster care can find themselves on the street, living homeless within three months. Stopping that cycle is the goal of a new 42-unit housing project in the Edmonton neighbourhood of Belvedere – the first of its kind in Alberta – built by the Right At Home Housing Society in partnership with NiGiNan.
Cunningham explains that decolonizing transitions out of care requires an Indigenous approach and acknowledging that addressing homelessness among Indigenous youth is as much about providing access to the land, language, culture, medicines and a sense of who they are and where they come from, as it is about putting a roof over a young person’s head.
That’s why, in addition to providing access to education and work training, programming for youth residents at Belvedere will help them learn to become oskâpêwis (Elder’s helpers), and teach them about their roles in ceremony, on-the-land skills and how to look after older people.
Four kôhkoms (grandmothers) and one mushum (grandfather) will live at Belvedere, and each youth will be matched with a grandparent, explains Cunningham. “In Indigenous communities, connections to grandparents are important, and we are going to bring that back into these young men and young women’s lives. They will each have someone who teaches them and who loves them.”
Studying a project that uses an Indigenous approach demands an academic approach to match, says Dr. Cynthia Puddu, an assistant professor in the Department of Allied Health and Human Performance. Puddu and her fellow MacEwan faculty members Dr. Erin Gray from social work and Dr. Katherine Sinclair from anthropology, along with Dr. Josh Evans from the University of Alberta, are working alongside NiGiNan and using Indigenous ways of knowing and methodologies to collect narratives from youth and document the effectiveness of the approach at Belvedere.
“The youth will tell us exactly what’s working and what’s not,” says Chris Beausoleil, housing support manager with NiGiNan, who has spent more than a decade working with inner-city youth. “I’ve seen the incredible shift and outcomes that can happen when Indigenous youth who are homeless get to experience ceremonies, spend time on the land and begin to feel a sense of pride. They are going to lead us and teach us how to do this right.”
The community-engaged scholarship project, funded through MacEwan’s Social Sciences and Humanities Resource Council (SSHRC) Institutional Grant and supported by the university’s Scholarly Activity Support Fund, was initiated with a pipe ceremony in September 2020 and will continue with sharing circles where youth can share their experiences and feedback.
Cheyenne Greyeyes, a Bachelor of Arts student and research assistant, will transcribe what happens during those sharing circles, make connections with youth, assist with literature reviews and help write the ethics proposal.
“Everything I do centres on my culture – what I study, the jobs I do and the company I keep,” says Greyeyes, who is from Muskeg Lake Cree Nation near Saskatoon. “I think it’s really exciting that this scholarship focuses on circles, which is an important aspect of our culture. It’s about working within Indigenous systems that allow youth to talk freely about their experiences and emotions.”
While the community-engaged scholarship project currently focuses on youth, there is the potential to extend the study to look at other unique aspects of Belvedere – the connections with young families who also call the building home, the experiences of the Elders and how youth residents will be connected to and serve their surrounding community.