$10 million more per year from Ontario to build new Indigenous housing hailed by service groups

By Colin Graf
Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

New funding for Indigenous housing from the Ontario government has left Justin Marchand, Chief Executive Officer of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services (OAHS), “ecstatic.” 

The funding, to be renewed annually, will provide Indigenous-led, culturally appropriate long-term housing solutions and support services to Indigenous people experiencing or at risk of homelessness, reads a government news release.

The money, $7.5 million to OAHS and $2.5 million to Miziwe Biik Development Corporation, which provides housing services in the Greater Toronto Area, will help provide better, safer and secure access to housing for Indigenous people, the release states.

“This is huge for us,” said Marchand. The fact the funding will continue in the future makes the impact of the announcement greater, giving OAHS “that source of stable operating funding which is often a barrier non-profits face,” he explained.

The agency has a mandate to provide safe and affordable housing to urban and rural First Nation, Inuit and Métis people living off-reserve in Ontario. The group’s vision is to lead the design, development and delivery of different forms of housing to meet the needs of clients.

The province has given the agencies a lot of flexibility in how to prioritize and use the money, which is a great help in trying “to really get at what people need,” said Marchand in an interview with Windspeaker.com. “That flexibility is so important.” 

The new funding can be used for supportive housing, transitional housing, rent supplements and housing allowances, and help to avoid emergency-based responses like shelters.  

The new money can also be used to provide a wide range of wraparound services and supports including hiring mental health and addiction workers, providing harm reduction services, medication assistance, and crisis intervention and prevention services.

It could be spent directly on supportive housing in the northern Ontario cities of Kenora and Thunder Bay, where planning for such projects has been ongoing, Marchand said.

OAHS has been acquiring land for two developments and securing municipal rezoning for the last three years. The one thing missing was operational funds, which could come from the newly-announced government support.

“Supportive housing is for us one of the solutions to homelessness that is really helping people transition off the street and into housing with supports, and back into community,” he said. It makes good sense to direct a good portion of the new funding northward in Ontario, as the percentage of people experiencing homelessness who are Indigenous grows from just over 20 per cent in southern areas such as Niagara or Hamilton to 50 to 99 per cent in northern cities, according to Marchand’s figures.

While the new money is “a good step forward,” there is “still a long way to go yet” in providing stable housing for the homeless Indigenous, he said.  While OAHS currently provides services to about 11,000 people, the estimated need is approximately 90,000.

The COVID pandemic has made the problems of homelessness for Indigenous people “more acute,” said Marchand, but has really “only amplified what Indigenous people in urban and rural areas have been facing for decades.”

The problem of homelessness has not been caused by the pandemic, and won’t be solved when an end comes to it either, he said.  It does, however, show how closely all people are tied to each other, highlighting that “the health of one person is the health of all.”

Justin Marchand, Chief Executive Officer of Ontario Aboriginal Housing Services, feels optimistic about a new fund designated for Indigenous housing. Marchand sees the fund as a way to combat homelessness, with planned developments in Kenora and Thunder Bay. – ONPHA photo

He also feels the virus has shown the limitations of homeless shelters, as shelters have had to cut services and occupancy in the wake of physical distancing requirements. Shelter workers are “caring and strong people,” but they have been forced to close beds, and there are also many individuals who won’t go to shelters for various reasons, said Marchand. “The answer to homelessness is not shelters, it’s homes.” 

His agency is looking for municipal social service leaders who would like to work together with OAHS to help develop Indigenous housing.

“We know that the needs of our communities are greater than today’s investment, but this is a positive step in the right direction,” said Coralee McGuire-Cyrette, executive director of the Ontario Native Women Association, at the recent funding announcement. “We will continue to advocate for increased investment to meet the needs and demands of our urban communities.” 

“Mental health and addiction problems within our community is one of our greatest obstacles when it comes to addressing homelessness,” said Lorna Lawrence, executive director of the Miziwe Biik Development Corporation. “The provision of housing support with support services… will be pivotal in closing the gap for our most vulnerable community members,” she added.