For a few nights after she moved into a Victoria housing complex this past August, Theresa Gibbons slept with her door open, unaccustomed to having space to herself.
Ms. Gibbons, 53, has been homeless for much of the past decade, during which she stayed in “pretty much every shelter in Victoria.”
“When you get into shelter mode, it’s really hard to get out of that mindset,” Ms. Gibbons said in a recent telephone interview from Spa’qun House, a modular housing project for Indigenous women who are experiencing or at risk of homelessness.
“So the door was a big deal – some of the people who moved in were like, ‘Oh yeah, I’ve got my own bathroom, I’ve got a door I can close.’
“But living with 60 to 70 people for six or seven years, it can be a little unnerving with it being quiet.”
Adjusting to the quiet, and a door she can close, is part of a bigger journey for Ms. Gibbons – and part of an overall approach to health and housing at Spa’qun House.
Billed as the first of its kind in B.C., the project provides culturally supportive housing. The model includes elements typical of B.C.s existing supportive housing projects – meals, counselling and round-the-clock staffing. But it also features cultural elements such as access to traditional foods, land-based healing programs and regular visits from elders.
The province put up $3.8-million to build and launch the project, which opened in August and is run by the Aboriginal Coalition to End Homelessness Society (ACEH), with support from Vancouver-based Atira Women’s Resource Society.
Although relatively small, with 21 units, it has a big ambition: to showcase a housing model that gets people off the street but also provides a sense of identity and, through that, a route to healthier lives.
Spa’qun House grew out of an earlier, three-year project involving ACEH and several agencies that focused on a “priority one” group. These were people with high needs, including mental-health and addiction issues, who had been banned from Victoria housing or shelter services for disruptive behaviour, including violence. There were 74 people in the pilot project, 20 of whom were Indigenous.
The project highlighted gaps when it came to Indigenous housing needs, particularly those of women fleeing violence, ACEH director Fran Hunt-Jinnouchi said.
“I, like many people, probably drove through our city and assumed that our Indigenous people are being taken care of,” Ms. Hunt-Jinnouchi said. “I have since come to learn that the specific group or target population that we are now focused on is almost doubly marginalized, because Indigenous housing has very much focused on affordable or family and low-income housing.
“That does not open the doors up to any of the people we are working with.”
That group includes people who live with chronic medical issues, have a history in the criminal-justice system and may have been dependent on the shelter system for years, even decades. A referral process involving provincial housing agency B.C. Housing and various housing providers came up with 95 candidates for spots at Spa’qun House. Twenty-one were selected.
Ms. Gibbons said she became homeless after she couldn’t afford to pay her rent and was evicted. Health problems and the deaths of several close relatives over a short period compounded her problems. She had back surgery for spinal stenosis in February.
Of Cree descent, she said she was not raised with strong cultural ties and is currently trying to learn more about her heritage.
“They [Spa’qun House] are bringing in traditional things and I’m grateful for that. Because it’s the start of a learning point for me, for possibly [learning about] my background.”
Ms. Gibbons said she is focusing on regaining her mobility and hopes to return to work with SOLID, a Victoria drug users’ group with whom she was a peer counsellor before her operation.
ACEH designed Spa’qun House with an eye to developing a “decolonized harm-reduction framework.”
As Ms. Hunt-Jinnouchi describes it, that framework – still evolving – would incorporate culture, language and healing and, ideally, a path toward recovery.
“The housing is just the first step … their Indigenous self, their cultural self, needs to be ignited and nurtured and supported,” she said, adding that culturally supportive housing, in and of itself, is not enough.
“If we do not provide pathways to healing and recovery … we are just kind of prolonging the inevitable in a warm setting. And that is not enough. It should not be enough in society, whether you’re Indigenous or non-Indigenous.”
Still in its infancy, Spa’qun House has had to pull back on programming and visitors because of COVID-19. But the residents – referred to as family members – are adjusting, getting used to doors that close and beds they can return to each night.
Juanita Valdez, who grew up in Victoria and said she has lived outside and in shelters for the past few years, said she appreciates being able to keep pets – she has two birds – and is becoming accustomed to living inside and having a regular routine. Ms. Valdez, 34, describes herself as Coast Salish.
Asked what she hopes for a year from now, she pauses for a long moment and then says she is taking things day by day.
“It’s been pretty successful, coming back to life,” said Ms. Valdez, who likened years of homelessness and heavy drug use to sleepwalking or waking nightmares because sometimes she would be awake for days at a time.
“It’s that kick I was looking for – so I am glad I was awakened, and now I am living my days from morning to night.”
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