Current Problems


‘Our guys don’t have somewhere to go’: Trudeau government criticized for taking too long to fund Indigenous housing

February 27, 2024

Housing organizations supporting Indigenous people say they are desperate for the money Ottawa’s new housing strategy is preparing to distribute.

Karl Cousineau
Karl Cousineau is in the Sagatay program at Na-Me-Res, an Indigenous men’s residence in Toronto.R.J. Johnston/Toronto Star

NationTalk: OTTAWA — Karl Cousineau has been living in shelters for half of his life.

Raised in foster care from age nine after losing his father, Cousineau moved from Ottawa to Toronto when he was 20, looking for resources and supports he couldn’t find at home. From there, he would go down a path of drugs and addiction for the next decade, living on the streets and in shelters in Toronto, Saskatoon and downtown Vancouver.

Three years ago, Cousineau hit rock bottom. Still suffering from addiction, he went back to Ottawa to care for his younger sister during the last year of her life as she lost her battle with cancer.

“Nobody was willing to help me at that point so, I just figured, just go back to Toronto,” said Cousineau, 37.

This time, however, he applied to the Sagatay program at Na-Me-Res, an Indigenous men’s residence. The one-year transition program for unhoused Indigenous men offers 22 temporary beds and classes in cultural and life-skills training.

But organizations like Na-Me-Res are desperate for funding the federal government promised in 2022 with its new Indigenous housing strategy — and they are concerned that Ottawa’s plan both fails to recognize different regional needs and is being rolled out with a lack of urgency.

Sagatay is a “highly successful” program, said manager Jane Roy, but its 22 beds are barely a “drop in the bucket” compared to the need. Roy says a lack of affordable housing means program graduates have nowhere to go but back to the street — and, in some cases, back to prison.

“It’ s just not fair” she said.

A City of Toronto street needs assessment report in 2021 found that Indigenous people made up just one to 2.5 per cent of the population, but represented 15 per cent of its unhoused population. It said Indigenous men were twice as likely to experience homelessness as non-Indigenous men.

Na-Me-Res executive director Steve Teekens estimates that Indigenous people account for 25 per cent of those experiencing homelessness in Toronto. 

“Indigenous homelessness is more pervasive. We have longer bouts of homelessness before people find housing, longer stays in shelters,” Teekens said.

And this issue is not specific to Toronto.

Indigenous homelessness is linked to the intergenerational effects of ongoing colonization, structural and institutional racism and cultural genocide.

“People coping with intergenerational traumas that maybe haven’t addressed those harms or sought healing usually deal with it through addictions, that contributes to their being homeless as well,” Teekens said.

Last month, the federal government began accepting proposals from Indigenous-led organizations to be the lead of a “For-Indigenous-By-Indigenous” national housing centre as part of its Urban, Rural and Northern Indigenous Housing Program announced in 2022.

The strategy is not an “Ottawa knows best” approach, Housing Minister Sean Fraser told reporters recently.

“I think it’s extremely important when we’re dealing with Indigenous housing, that we listen to the voices of Indigenous people and Indigenous communities if we’re going to come up with the best policy,” Fraser said.

The new national centre will be selected next month by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), Indigenous Services Canada and Crown-Indigenous Relations. Its mandate will be to lead initiatives and provide funding to address the housing needs of Indigenous people .

But Teekens said the decision to have one such centre is too “pan-Indigenous,” and fails to recognize that housing needs and regulations differ drastically across Canada.

“If I was a decision-maker, I’d be advocating for a regional approach, rather than a centralized, one-size-fits-all approach,” he said.

CMHC spokesperson Brie Martin said the selection process for the national centre will take into account the organization’s “adequate representation” across geographic regions, Indigenous identity and demographics. 

The Trudeau government had promised to support Indigenous infrastructure since it came to power in 2015, but did not announce the new Indigenous housing strategy until 2022. It included $300 million over five years, and last year’s budget added $4 billion over seven years beginning 2024.

Of the initial funding, more than $281 million was provided to the National Indigenous Collaborative Housing Incorporated (NICHI) for 2023 to 2025 “to address immediate unmet needs” for Indigenous people, 87 per cent of whom live outside their communities and do not receive federal housing support. The remaining $18.5 million was provided to CMHC to “support Indigenous-led engagements.”

CEO John Gordon said NICHI is planning to announce its first funding recipients in the coming weeks.

Accessing affordable housing in the private rental market is more difficult for Indigenous people experiencing homelessness, Teekens said, because of prejudice, racism and stereotypes.

Sagatay relies on programs like Toronto’s Rapid Rehousing Initiative to help house many men who finish the program. But Cousineau noted that “just because you have a place doesn’t mean that your struggle is done with.” He said more supports are needed for people once they do get housing, especially for those with past addictions or mental illness.

The Sagatay program provides support for Indigenous men through the 38 affordable housing units Na-Me-Res owns. The organization has projects underway that will add another 29 units, but Roy said demand for affordable housing always outstrips the supply.

“We’re always in a place where our guys don’t have somewhere to go. Oftentimes, they stay with us over a year,” she said.

“We can’t just put them out on the street either.”

Roy said Sagatay often loses men on its wait-list due to relapses or other issues, or simply an inability to regain communication with them. More funding, she said, could help expand programs, providing mores space for those facing homelessness and those leaving correctional facilities.

Cousineau is planning to move into one of Na-Me-Res’s new housing projects in June, where he’s excited to apply all “the little things” he’s learned in Sagatay in real life. He has become a fire keeper for the house’s sweat lodge, a role he said carries a lot of responsibilities, and volunteers at events around the city such as local powwows and round dances.

“Right now, I’m just trying to be happy.”

Joy SpearChief-Morris is an Ottawa-based reporter covering federal politics and Indigenous issues for the Star. Reach her via email: