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HomeWorld NewsCanada newsNew Indigenous women's housing program works to fill 'gigantic need' in Edmonton

New Indigenous women’s housing program works to fill ‘gigantic need’ in Edmonton

A new housing initiative in Edmonton is working to address homelessness among Indigenous women even as the need for housing threatens to overwhelm service providers.

Iskwewak Iskotew Nihkotawan (Women’s Fire Lodge) will house 20 Indigenous women at risk of homelessness for stays up to 18 months. Its grand opening was held on Monday.

“A lot of our women are coming out of correctional facilities, so they’re building everything from learning how to use a cell phone to reconnecting with their children,” said Rachelle Venne, CEO of Esquao Institute for the Advancement of Aboriginal Women, one of the partners in the housing initiative.

Because of that, Esquao is offering more than just housing. It is also running programs to help residents navigate the justice system, learn about healthy relationships and offer access to elders and ceremonies. 

Each one-bedroom unit is rented for $750 per month and includes utilities and internet. The average rent for a similar unit in Edmonton costs about $1,000 per month, according to a 2022 survey by CMHC.

A small white eat-in kitchen.
Everything in the apartments is new, according to Elder Marrgo Pariseau who said the residents take a lot of pride in their new places. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Paying rent helps the residents with establishing credit and learning how to manage their finances, Venne said. 

Homeward Trust Edmonton, an organization dedicated to ending homelessness, bought the building in the north central area of Edmonton in 2020. It recently partnered with Esquao, which provides programming and support for residents. 

Susan McGee, CEO of Homeward Trust, said the organization has 3,000 people on its list for housing right now. 

The need for housing in Edmonton can feel overwhelming, Venne said, and Indigenous people are overrepresented in the homeless population. 

“Even since starting in May, we have identified that there is a gigantic need for the type of services we’re providing,” Venne said.

Some of the women Esquao is working with have referred friends and family members who need the same help, she added. 

‘A sense of belonging’

Cultural supports are important, since women often have access inside institutions but struggle to find them once they’re out, Venne said. 

In fact, Elder Marrgo Pariseau said a correctional facility is the first place some ever experienced ceremony. 

Pariseau smiles sitting outside the apartment building.
Elder Marrgo Pariseau said it’s often challenging for women come from correctional institutions to find housing. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Pariseau, who is also vice-president of Esquao, said providing cultural supports to women who have been incarcerated is essential. 

“It gives them a sense of belonging and they have something,” she said. 

“We all need a home and I think that’s what it does for them.” 

In addition to the sense of community and safety in the building, the women also have a sense of pride in their new accommodations, Pariseau said.

“They phone everybody in their community … they have all the relatives coming to see them.”

Rachelle Venne stands in a doorway.
Rachelle Venne, right, gives a tour of the new apartments during the grand opening along with another Esquao staff member. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

While residents are able to stay in their apartment for up to 18 months —  perhaps a bit longer depending on their need — Venne said some may end up leaving ahead of that deadline.

“Some of them are moms, so they’re regaining access to their kids,” Venne said.

The one-bedroom units aren’t able to accommodate mothers with multiple children, although there is a crib available. 

She said the apartments and programming are a good start for women trying to find their way.

“Discrimination does exist,” Pariseau said. 

“When you’re trying to find an apartment and you’re Indigenous-looking [and] you have bad credit or no credit, it’s very difficult.” 

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